Louisiana cancer-ridden county known for toxic air pollution tops NYC for highest coronavirus death rate

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A parish in Louisiana once dubbed “cancer alley” after making headlines for its high air pollution is now reporting the highest coronavirus death rate in the country, according to a report.

St. John the Baptist parish sits about 30 miles from New Orleans on the Mississippi River. It is sparsely populated and is home to about 43,000 people.

Dr. Christy Montegut, the coroner in St John the Baptist parish, said he recorded 30 deaths in the parish linked to COVID-19. That’s a rate of 68.7 per 100,000 people, The Guardian reported. The death rate in New York City, which is the epicenter of the outbreak in the country, stands at 29 per 100,000.

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In a White House briefing Sunday, Dr. Deborah Birx, coordinator of the federal coronavirus response, said the parish would join the list of counties around the country being monitored for their coronavirus outbreaks alongside more densely populated hot spots in New York, California and Washington state.

A worker rests alongside Jackson Square in the French Quarter of New Orleans, normally bustling with tourists, but now nearly deserted due to the new coronavirus pandemic, Friday, March 27, 2020.  (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

A worker rests alongside Jackson Square in the French Quarter of New Orleans, normally bustling with tourists, but now nearly deserted due to the new coronavirus pandemic, Friday, March 27, 2020.  (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
(AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

St. John the Baptist parish is home to a petrochemical plant owned by the Japanese firm Denka. In 2015, the Environmental Protection Agency’s National Air Toxics Assessment (NATA) map showed those who lived near the Denka plant, in the parish’s largest city of LaPlace, were at the highest risk of developing cancer caused by airborne toxins.

Residents and public health professionals have suggested there’s a connection between high rates of air pollution in the St. John the Baptist parish and the high death rate due to COVID-19, a respiratory illness similar to pneumonia. Research to support those claims is new and hasn’t been conclusive, according to The Guardian.

“The Denka facility has been releasing toxic chemicals into the air for 50 years. All the community have some type of respiratory impact, some more than others. But they’re already very vulnerable,” Wilma Subra, an environmental scientist and community advocate, told The Guardian. “And then you add the exposure to the virus, which has a huge impact on the lungs, then they are much more apt to get it and then to have very detrimental effects.”

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Dr. Michael Jerrett, an environmental health sciences professor at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, told The Guardian air pollution increases the risk for pneumonia but further studies would need to be conducted before he could conclude air pollution has a similar effect with COVID-19.

“Being in areas of higher exposure to common air pollutants like nitrogen dioxide and fine particulate matter, does increase the risk of acquiring pneumonia,” he said. “So to the extent that COVID behaves in a similar way to bacterial pneumonia, which is more common, or other viral pneumonias, we have evidence that long term exposure well increases your susceptibility to acquiring the disease.”

Denka has denied its plant is responsible for the high fatality rate of COVID-19 patients in the community, claiming state officials have said other factors, including high instances of diabetes and obesity in residents, could also be at play.

“In this time of fear and uncertainty, we are all working hard to help make sure everyone has accurate and necessary information. We are trying to help the people in our community by connecting them with facts. There is no reason to believe that DPE’s operations could contribute to an increased risk from COVID-19,” Denka spokesman Jim Harris said.

“State officials are reporting other factors may increase risks from the virus, including diabetes and obesity, both of which Louisiana has higher-than-average rates of,” he added.

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Louisiana is the fifth most infected state in the country, recording at least 14,867 confirmed cases. It ranks fourth in the nationwide tally of COVID-19 fatalities, with at least 512 deaths. The outbreak of the virus in the state has been linked to massive Mardi Gras celebrations in late February, when thousands lined the streets for parades in New Orleans.

In a press conference Monday, Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, said Louisiana “might be seeing the beginning of the flattening of the curve.”

“While all numbers are still high we’re starting to see real signs these mitigation measures are starting to yield real results,” he said, according to The News-Star. “The data points we’re seeing will only become a trend if we continue to follow the stay-at-home order. We have to keep it up.”

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Meanwhile, St. John the Baptist parish does not have a morgue, ventilators or a hospital. Therefore, COVID-19 patients must be transported for care at hospitals in New Orleans or Baton Rouge. Funeral directors are racing to bury bodies. Anticipating a surge in fatalities within the next 14 days, Montegut has asked the state for a refrigerator truck to store the dead, The Guardian reported.

St. John parish President Jaclyn Hotard announced Monday the sheriff’s department would be facilitating drive-thru testing stations this week amid a recent spike in cases, Fox 8 reported.

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