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In 'Cancer Alley,' a renewed focus on systemic racism is too late

Black Americans are dying from COVID-19 at more than double the rate of other groups, which experts say owes in part to pollution in Black communities.
A cemetery stands in contrast to the chemical plants that surround it in "Cancer Alley" near Baton Rouge, La.
A cemetery stands in contrast to the chemical plants that surround it in "Cancer Alley" near Baton Rouge, La.Giles Clarke / Getty Images

Robert Taylor has lived on the banks of the Mississippi River in Reserve, Louisiana, his entire life. Both of his parents worked in the local sugar refinery when plantations made up this stretch of the river between New Orleans and Baton Rouge.

But where sugar cane once grew, chemicals now spew from smoke stacks.

When the petrochemical industry moved in, the predominantly Black community’s health began to suffer.

“We didn't know why. We were just ignorant plantation hands, you know, the descendants of slaves," he said.

A higher risk of cancer in these communities — surrounded by the densest concentration of petrochemical plants in the country — have led to the area gaining the unwelcome title of “Cancer Alley.” Similar situations have played out in communities across the U.S. in which Black communities have had to endure more pollution than their white neighbors.

These historical and structural iniquities are now under fresh scrutiny, spurred by protests about police violence that have expanded to discuss how systemic racism has hurt Black communities for decades.

It's a particularly timely discussion for areas like Taylor’s in Cancer Alley where a different disease has been ravaging the community in recent months. St. John the Baptist Parish, where Reserve is located, has recorded one of the highest death rates from COVID-19 in the entire state, and at one point the whole country.

Black Americans are dying from COVID-19 at more than double the rate of white, Latino and Asian Americans analysis from APM Research, a nonpartisan research lab, has shown. If Black Americans were dying at the same rate as white Americans, at least 14,400 people would still be alive, the research calculated.

“I have three of my close friends who lost both parents within 24 hours of each other,” said Taylor, an octogenarian who, in 2016, founded the Concerned Citizens of St. John the Baptist Parish, a group that campaigns for better protection from toxic air for local residents.

“Then you had a father and his daughter die the same day. Two sisters also died the same day,” he added.

The discussion has also spurred an examination of similar dynamics in other countries. In France and Britain, diverse communities have also been hit more severely as demonstrators — inspired by the movement in the U.S. — seek to draw parallels with the systemic racism in their societies.

The fact that these tragedies have been playing out in communities of color across the U.S. and around the world is no accident, said Hop Hopkins, director of strategic partnerships and an environmental justice advocate at the environmental organization the Sierra Club.

“It says something that you can plug your ZIP code into a website and you can see what your life expectancy is,” Hopkins said, “and it’s not the same for everyone. It’s not accidental, it’s unfair and it’s unjust.”

Black Americans are twice as likely to be exposed to air pollution and more likely to be exposed to the most toxic pollution, Kerry Ard, associate professor of environmental sociology at Ohio State University, said. Even African Americans with higher incomes are exposed to more toxic air than white Americans with lower incomes, she added.

“These areas have for so many years just been ignored and thought of as the place where bad things like the polluting facilities go,” she said. “African American communities just become like the dumping zones.”

“Corporations and governments felt they had less economic, political and social power, so were less able to put up a strong-enough fight to prevent these types of installations from being placed in their communities,” Hopkins said.

We need to recognize that “racism and white supremacy played a significant role in that,” he added.

Chronic exposure to air pollution — particularly microscopic airborne particles called PM2.5 — can lead to a number of serious health issues including heart disease, respiratory illnesses and diabetes, said Michael Jerrett, a professor at UCLA’s Fielding School of Public Health and an expert in the health effects of air pollution.

PM2.5 are emitted from vehicles, power plants and other dirty industries and can consist of hundreds of different chemicals. They can enter the bloodstream through the lungs causing them to become inflamed. If the exposure to pollution is sustained, that inflammation can spread to other areas of the body like the cardiovascular system, Jerrett explained.

“The more we study air pollution, the more we see that there is a very pervasive risk that affects most of the body's major organ systems and metabolic functions,” he added.

Many of these associated conditions are also “key determinants of whether you go into very serious states of COVID," he said.

Researchers at Harvard University recently found a clear link between air pollution and COVID-19 and concluded that “long-term exposure to air pollution increases vulnerability to experiencing the most severe COVID-19 outcomes.” They argued that the findings align with all the research that shows PM2.5 exposure can cause conditions “that dramatically increase the risk of death in COVID-19 patients.”

Similarly, researchers at Tulane University and the University of Memphis made the argument that long-term exposure to air pollution itself "should be considered a pre-existing condition for COVID-19.”

A recent U.K. government report that tried to explain why Black, Asian and minority ethnic people are dying in greater numbers was criticized for failing to even mention the role that air pollution could have played.

Rather than addressing demonstrators' concerns, the Trump administration is rolling back controls on dirty industries to try and stimulate the economy. Earlier this month, President Donald Trump signed an executive order that would allow major construction projects such as fossil fuel infrastructure and highways — projects that disproportionately impact communities of color — to bypass environmental protections.

It follows moves from the president in March to fulfill a campaign promise to weaken Obama-era standards on vehicle emissions and to instruct the Environmental Protection Agency to relax the enforcement of regulations designed to protect public health. Gina McCarthy, EPA director under President Barack Obama, called it "an open license to pollute."

“In order to treat places and resources as disposable, the people who live there have to get treated like rubbish, too," Hopkins said.

America and the world “should learn from this moment, this uprising, which is bringing these things to light. Black people in this moment are not standing by idly and letting this happen,” he added.

“We can’t go back in time to undo the centuries of institutional racism that resulted in shorter life expectancies and elevated rates of disease,” Hopkins said, “but I think what we can do now is we can listen to Black leaders who are putting forward deep, comprehensive platforms for radical change.”