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The Truth about the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic Study

The petrochemical industry is under attack unlike anything in recent history. While resistance to industry is nothing new, the challenges we face today hit in an area that is difficult to fight against without coming across as completely out-of-touch. In today’s world, many rely on emotion, paying no attention to facts.
Earlier this month, the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic (TELC) published an environmental research letter in IOPScience claiming residents in poor and/or Black Louisiana industrial communities have higher rates of cancer due to toxic air pollution. Although these claims are misleading and incorrect, it is tough to argue them without coming across as insensitive.
The TELC letter was based on a report the group published in June 2021. Upon review, the study showed what public health professionals have known for decades and what’s true across the country: higher cancer incidence is linked to poverty, not industrial exposure. Experts link this to lack of preventative care, poor nutrition, and other factors that the state and others are working to address.
To reach its desired conclusions, the TELC study changed the boundaries of the typical seven-parish Louisiana Industrial Corridor to include parishes with higher cancer rates, omitted census tracts and parishes that reported no cancer cases, and excluded smoking and obesity, the factors most strongly linked to cancer. Additionally, it used old National Air Toxics Assessment (NATA) data, opting to use a 2005 NATA rather than any of the later years, which show lower rates of pollution as industries have reduced their emissions over time. Even then, it still only proved what we have known for a long time: Income is a significant determinant for cancer risk because it tends to establish whether someone has access to preventative healthcare and healthy lifestyle options.
The study blamed local industrial facilities, state and local officials, the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality, and the Louisiana Department of Health, as well as the Louisiana Tumor Registry (LTR) for failing to address a perceived problem of health disparities in industrial areas. In fact, the LTR published a response titled “Don’t Believe Everything You Read or Hear,” noting a number of groups have tried to elevate their causes by propagating distrust in the LTR and its data, and by attacking its methods and misrepresenting its responsibilities. The LTR’s reports, which have received national acclaim for data accuracy every year since the late 90s, show there is no widespread increase of cancer incidence in the industrial corridor.
According to the American Association for Cancer Research, environmental pollutants account for only two percent of relative contribution to cancer incidence, whereas tobacco use and obesity make up 33 and 19 percent respectively. Louisiana has some of the highest smoking and obesity rates in the nation. Conversely, over the past 50 years, air pollution from industrial activity has dramatically reduced as industrial facilities have implemented better technologies to mitigate emissions.
TELC and groups like them are prepared to do anything it takes to rid Louisiana of industrial businesses that provide good jobs, much needed local tax dollars, and products we depend on with no alternative plans to replace them. We must stand up against these efforts by disputing these claims with hard, scientific facts and be part of the effort to help improve the state’s health and move us all in a positive direction.

- Greg Bowser

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