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Neoprene plants in the crosshairs of cancer risk in a Louisiana community

RESERVE, Louisiana — Up and down Lydia Gerard’s street in the small Louisiana community of Reserve, she points out the homes of neighbors who have either died of cancer, or now have a terminal diagnosis of the disease.

“It’s pretty much everywhere you look,” Gerard told CBS News.

Just outside the reserve — a city with a majority-black population — Denka Performance Elastomer’s plant produces neoprene, a synthetic rubber. One of its components, chloroprene, a known carcinogen, is regularly released into the air.

In February, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Justice Department sued chemical maker Denka, alleging that its plant “poses an imminent and substantial danger to public health” and chemical company DuPont, the plant’s property owner.

The EPA found that chloroprene emissions were 14 times higher than recommended levels.

According to the EPA, cancer risk on the reserve is about 50 times the national average. The reserve is an 85-mile stretch of Louisiana between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, containing more than 200 plants and refineries. The stretch is nicknamed “Cancer Alley” because of the high cancer rate in the area.

Lydia’s husband, Walter Gerard, died of kidney cancer in 2018, and she blamed the plant for his death.

“Until they prove they didn’t do it, then I’ll say they did,” Gerrard said.

Chloroprene is considered particularly toxic to children and can alter their DNA. Fifth Ward Elementary School, and hundreds of its children, are located within 450 feet of the Denka property.

“Monitoring stations show that this is unacceptable,” environmental scientist Dr. Kimberly Terrell, a professor at Tulane University School of Law, said of the level of toxicity in schools

A January 2022 study co-authored by Terrell found a link between cancer and toxic air pollution in places like the reserve.

“And it’s not by a small margin,” Terrell said. “This is 10 times higher than the acceptable level.”

In a statement to CBS News, Denca said it has reduced chloroprene emissions by 85% and invested $35 million to reduce pollution. However, the Justice Department claims Denka did not move quickly enough to fix the problem, and Terrell agrees.

“It’s like going to your doctor and saying, ‘Well, yeah, I smoke a pack a day, but I used to smoke five packs a day,'” Terrell said.

Gerard was recently diagnosed with cancer. He feels trapped, and says if he tries to sell his house, who will buy it?

“How could they knowingly expose us like this and have us at this high risk?” Gerard asked.

— Janet Shamlian contributed to this report.

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