'I'm Scared': Study Links Cancer Alley Air Pollution to Higher Death Rates From Covid-19

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A gas flare from the Shell Chemical LP petroleum refinery that sits within Cancer Alley.
A gas flare from the Shell Chemical LP petroleum refinery that sits within Cancer Alley.
Photo: Getty

Louisiana is starting to reopen on Friday, but that doesn’t mean much to 66-year-old Myrtle Felton. She lives in St. James Parish in the southeastern portion of the state where there’s not much business at all except the refineries and chemical plants that surround her home.

This industry presence isn’t only responsible for the lack of stores and grocery stores near Felton. It’s also responsible for the region’s alarmingly poor air quality, which not only weakens individuals’ respiratory and immune systems but now puts them at a disproportionate risk of dying from covid-19. A paper out Thursday found that black communities in Cancer Alley—a stretch of communities along the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans with disproportionately high cancer rates—are facing higher death rates from covid-19.

“You’re afraid to go out,” Felton told Earther. “You’re afraid to do anything other than breathe God’s air that he’s giving us. I’m scared because of the pandemic because it’s a life or death situation.”


Now, the coronavirus does not discriminate. It can come for anyone and everyone, but data shows that communities of color in the U.S. are suffering at a higher rate. Many of the essential workers on the frontline of this pandemic are non-white and can’t wait this out at home. They have bills to pay and jobs that won’t necessarily let them work remotely. This puts them at a disproportionate risk of exposure.

Air pollution has a lot to do with the high death rates we’re seeing among communities of color. That’s because chronic exposure to air pollutants such as ozone or particulate matter is always dangerous. Add in a highly contagious virus that attacks the lungs, and the public crisis has only escalated.

Previous research has shown that exposure to particulate matter can increase a person’s chance of dying from covid-19. This latest research paper from the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic—which still has not been peer-reviewed—zooms into the relationship between air pollution and coronavirus in Louisiana. While they don’t make a causal statement here, the results are shocking.


“Air pollution is something we sort of think of as a slow killer, but covid-19 really illustrates that it can also be a fast killer,” lead author Kimberly Terrell, the director of community outreach at the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic, told Earther. “When communities are overburdened with something that harms their lungs, that can put them at higher risk for sudden death from something like a respiratory virus.”

Though black people make up only 33 percent of Louisiana’s population, they account for 56 percent of the state’s covid-19 deaths. The authors found that the deaths did not correlate with the prevalence of diabetes, obesity, and smoking. The connection with air pollution was clear, though, especially across Cancer Alley. The research breaks down the covid-19 data by parish but has air quality data by parish and census tract, which is a smaller scale. Terrell would’ve liked to analyze covid-19 data at this scale, too, but that data does not yet exist.


Terrell hopes these findings will compel legislators and representatives to address the chronic issue of air pollution. One immediate change she suggested is improved air quality monitoring to know when the air outside is safe or not.

“If we have hard data that are telling us that economically disadvantaged communities and black communities are being disproportionately put at risk, that’s a problem,” Terrell said. “And that is something that needs to be, first, acknowledged and addressed with the urgency that it requires.” 


Felton wants more than monitoring. She wants to see an increased urgency to protect her community and keep polluters from expanding any further. St. James and the surrounding parishes have enough industry as is. They don’t need anymore, especially as the coronavirus pandemic grips the nation. Despite the clear risks, though, a $9.4 billion plastics refinery is set to be built in St. James Parish by 2022 despite local opposition.

“We need help, help, help, help,” Felton said. “There’s just too many chemical plants around here where people live, and people are dying out every day. I just think somebody needs to come in and address the situation that’s going on here because it’s serious.”