Barbara Washington is a lifelong resident of Convent, Louisiana, a town of fewer than 500 residents along the Mississippi River that has been hit hard by cancer.
“One, two, three, four, five, six, seven … about eight,” she told VOA, counting the number of people on her street who have died from cancer in recent years. “And my sister died from lung cancer at just 57 years old. She didn’t smoke. She just worked at one of the chemical plants at night.”
Convent is in the southeastern part of the state, part of a corridor surrounded by chemical plants.
U.S. first lady Jill Biden’s recent visit to the nearby city of New Orleans highlighted the region’s dubious distinction of having some of the highest cancer rates in the nation. It’s a scourge the Biden administration aims to combat with an ambitious effort to cut America’s cancer death rate by at least 50% over the next 25 years.
“It’s a problem in southeast Louisiana, but it’s really a statewide problem,” said Joe Ramos, director and chief executive officer of the Louisiana Cancer Research Center (LCRC). "Louisiana is consistently among the worst-hit by cancer in the nation. We’re always among the bottom five states as far as the number of people diagnosed with cancer, as well as, unfortunately, the number of people who die from it.”
Ramos said carcinogenic pollutants in the air are undoubtedly a part of the problem, but that behavioral factors such as smoking, drinking and obesity also contribute to the state’s above-average cancer rate.
“This is a complicated problem,” he told VOA. “But the president’s focus on the issue underscores how important that coming together to find a solution is for the people of this state and this country.”
Convent is part of what is known as Cancer Alley, a 136-kilometer stretch along the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge that contains more than 200 petrochemical plants and refineries.
The area is vital for America’s industrial needs, accounting for 25% of the country’s petrochemical production. But local residents can’t help but think about the human costs involved.
“This was such a beautiful place to grow up,” said Myrtle Felton, another Convent resident, recalling her childhood here in the 1960s. “It was so clean, and you could grow a garden and play outside for as long as your parents would let you.
“Nowadays, you wake up in the morning, and you find chemical residue from the surrounding factories covering your car and damaging it,” she said. “You find the side of your house is discolored yellow. Your roof, too. Pollution is billowing out from the factories, and it’s scary because you can’t help thinking that you’re breathing this stuff. It’s best not to go outside some days.”
Not everyone is convinced, however, that petrochemical plants are to blame for Louisiana’s high prevalence of cancer. Senator Bill Cassidy, a medical doctor and a Republican from Louisiana, pushed back against this assertion.
“We have a higher incidence of cigarette smoking, of obesity, of certain viral infections and other things which increase the incidence of cancer in our state,” he told New Orleans' Times-Picayune in 2021.
“So, whenever you speak of Cancer Alley … you have to do what is called a regression analysis to separate out those factors,” Cassidy added, “and several others that could be an alternative, and a more typical explanation for why some folks may have cancer. When you do that, the amount of cancer which is left unexplained is pretty marginal.”
Comprehensive solutions required
In a study published last year, Tulane University’s Environmental Law Clinic estimated that high levels of toxic air pollution were responsible for 85 cancer cases each year in Louisiana.
The study also found that neighborhoods with higher poverty levels were most susceptible to living with higher levels of toxic air pollution. Poorer neighborhoods with the most toxic air had an average annual cancer rate of 502 cases per 100,000 people, compared with the state average of 480.3 cases per 100,000 residents.
Those defending the right of the industrial plants to operate so close to residents say the correlation between the plants and cancer isn't as conclusive as factors such as obesity and smoking.
Kim Terrell, lead author of the Tulane clinic’s study, however, insists focusing on one cause of cancer over another is counterproductive.
“To me, it’s like saying that drinking and driving kills more people than texting and driving,” she told VOA. “Who cares? Neither is a good idea, and both should be stopped. Similarly, there are a lot of different risk factors for cancer, and if we’re going to improve health outcomes in our state, we have to tackle all of those risk factors and not just focus on one at a time.”
That's what the Biden administration aims to do through the Cancer Moonshot, an initiative Joe Biden first championed as vice president in 2016 to supercharge America’s fight against cancer.
Biden, who lost his son Beau to brain cancer in 2015, proposed $2.8 billion in new Cancer Moonshot funding in his 2024 federal budget submitted to Congress this month. Among the many projects the Moonshot would fund are efforts to better understand how environmental factors affect cancer risks, boost cancer screening, decrease preventable cancers, better support patients and caregivers, and augment cutting-edge cancer research.
While Republicans, who control the House of Representatives, declared Biden’s budget “dead on arrival,” federal efforts to combat deadly diseases from Alzheimer's to cancer have long garnered bipartisan support.
“Everyone who wants to be a part of this fight has a place,” said LCRC director Ramos. “It’s going to take academia, the public sector, the private sector — all of us working together on a variety of solutions at once.”
Nearly 2 million new cancer cases are expected to be diagnosed in the United States this year, with more than 600,000 deaths. A disproportionate number of diagnoses and deaths will occur in Louisiana, where Jill Biden last week committed to “building a world where cancer is not a death sentence.”
“I think the first lady’s visit to Louisiana last week is an indication of the administration’s continued commitment to cancer research,” said Erik Flemington, a professor of cancer research at the Tulane University School of Medicine, a partner in LCRC, “and I think it shows their appreciation for the importance of reaching parts of the country that are more highly impacted by cancer.”
But Louisiana isn’t only highly impacted. It’s also a state that many believe is poised to make big advances in the fight against cancer.
“The Louisiana Cancer Research Center — and I like to call it Louisiana’s Cancer Research Center — is embedded in the community at so many different points,” Ramos told VOA. “We’re engaged in clinical trials in communities across the state because we want to understand exactly what our communities are going through and how best to help them survive and thrive.”
He added, “Our physical center is also in the heart of the biomedical center where our faculty can create startup companies and work with existing private companies to develop more effective diagnostics and therapeutics.”
Ramos believes the LCRC will have a big role in achieving Biden’s ambitious Moonshot goals.
That would be important news for Louisianans like Washington and Felton, who, through activist organizations such as Inclusive Louisiana seek to draw attention to the devastating impact of cancer on their communities.
“Our health is all we have,” Washington told VOA. “We need help lowering the risk of cancer in our communities. Finding a cure is important, yes, but so is putting a moratorium on any new chemical plant trying to come to our community, and having our government regulate any plant that’s already here. This is our life we’re talking about, and it matters.”