Residents of the town on the banks of the Mississippi River have watched as family members and neighbors have been lost to cancer. Official figures show the risk of cancer from toxic air is 50 times higher in Reserve than the national average. Feeling neglected by politicians, they are fighting back against the chemical plant has been emitting chloroprene into the air for half a century.
Reserve, Louisiana, has a higher risk of cancer than anywhere in America – a hazard residents must face every day. We hear their stories
The small town of Reserve sits 30 miles from New Orleans in Louisiana. Home to just under 10,000 residents, it is also the place in America with the greatest risk of cancer because of air toxicity, according to US government science.
Three years ago the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found that emissions from the Pontchartrain Works facility, in Reserve, were the primary cause of a cancer risk 50 times greater than the national average.
The plant’s owners – originally DuPont but now the Japanese company Denka – have long disputed the science that classifies its primary pollutant, chloroprene, a likely carcinogen. But that hasn’t stopped residents routinely describing extraordinary health conditions they argue must be linked to the plant’s emissions.
“I didn’t want to die in front of my students,” says Augustine Dorris, who speaks in staccato sentences, sometimes struggling to regain her breath. “I was in the classroom, I’d pass out and wake up with the kids running all over the place. I didn’t know where I was after the seizures.”
Augustine has lived in Reserve her entire life, spending most of it in a family home six blocks from the fenceline that rings the plant. She remembers, as a teenager, watching the plant being built as she played in the grass outside.
It was the seizures that forced her retirement as a home economics teacher at the local middle school in 2003. But she had already survived breast cancer, a mastectomy and a hysterectomy. The seizures, she says, have never been fully diagnosed, but relate to a respiratory condition that sometimes stops enough blood reaching her brain.
Her hair has been falling out since the cancer came in the late 1990s. Her skin flakes “like sandpaper” every day. She washes her face with blended oatmeal, but that rarely contains the rashes.
Augustine doesn’t think twice about who is to blame for her ailments, old and new: “It’s the plant. I don’t have any doubt.”
She recalls the first time she smelled the plant’s emissions. “It’s a foul odour. You don’t want to go outside. You don’t want to go out and play.”
But Augustine will never leave Reserve. “This is where I live. This is where I can afford.” she said. She takes a breath. “I thank God for that. Where I am.”
It took a few years for the chronic sinus conditions to emerge. The tumour followed later, and has caused her crippling pain ever since.
Margaret Fiedler moved to LaPlace, a town that sits nextdoor to Reserve, from Florida 25 years ago to be closer to her daughter. She bought a little property next to the fenceline without thinking twice. She gutted the insides, rewired and replumbed. It was meant to be a home for the rest of her life. Now she looks back on it as a mistake.
Before she came to LaPlace, Margaret exercised every day. But the agonising tumour in her right hip, diagnosed over a decade ago, makes that impossible now. The three surgeries for her sinus conditions haven’t stopped the near constant infections and the almost daily nosebleeds.
“I just finished taking another round of antibiotics,” she says. “It’s a miserable life.”
Many of her neighbours have developed kidney disease and cancer. “Just unbelievable health problems.” Many have died young.
“This has been a rolling death knell for close to 50 years. It is a constant, genocidal pumping of chemicals into the air,” she says. “If we were in Syria and some despot threw chemicals at us, and we died, the whole world would stand up and say: ‘Oh, how horrible. This is genocide.’ But because we’re in an environment of corporate production and the death rate is slow, we are not counted.”
Her criticism of her local government is equally biting and equally calm.
“Parish officials are in total denial. Even when the facts are thrown at them. They admit no fault; in the air, in the water. All that anyone is worried about is their livelihoods, their jobs.”
Rosalind always wanted to leave.
“My wife used to say – if something happens to you I’m getting away from here,” says Allen Schnyder. “Her worst fear was being around the chemical plants.”
When the two began dating in the early 1980s, Rosalind moved to Reserve with Allen – a town he had lived in all his life, and where generations of his family had too. In the decades afterwards she pushed him to relocate their family, but he never relented. “She was used to living in clean air. I was accustomed to it and I didn’t think nothing about it.”
Rosalind died from breast cancer in 2012.
“I wish I would have left when she was pushing me,” he says, quietly.
She wasn’t the only one in Allen’s close circle to face the same diagnosis. “I’ve lost so many people here with cancer – so many people I know and who are close to me,” Allen says.
His breathing is labored as he speaks. Doctors diagnosed him with a thickened lining on his left lung and he complains of constant upper respiratory problems, along with his skin. “It’s always irritated. Hives all the time.”
Allen worked maintenance at the DuPont plant for a couple of years, and for longer at Our Lady of Grace Catholic school – so close it almost catches the plant’s afternoon shadow. During night shifts on both jobs when the emissions would often roll in, he would think to himself, without much concern: “Man, DuPont putting out some stuff tonight.”
But now Allen thinks twice.
“Since I got educated; seeing what reality is and what the plant been doing, I’m not looking to spend my last days in Reserve,” he says. “That’s my goal. To try to leave for somewhere I can live longer and get my teenage son out of danger.”
When Walter’s cancer came back, it came back fast.
“He had gotten a new drug regiment the day before he passed. He didn’t even have a chance to try it,” says his widow Lydia Gerard. “It was a quick downhill.”
When he was first diagnosed with kidney cancer in 2014, the couple didn’t think much about where it might have come from. “He asked the doctor what caused it, and the doctor just said, ‘You’re unlucky.’”
But three years later, when his doctors discovered the cancer had metastasized in his lungs, everything had changed. The Gerards, who lived along the fenceline nearly all their lives, had happened upon the community meeting where officials first disclosed government findings on the cancer risks associated with chloroprene emissions in Reserve.
They were horrified and convinced: the emissions were killing them. Walter was a fixture at community meetings until his death in March last year. Lydia continues on in his absence, despite her own health battles.
“My lips would swell, my eyes would swell, just for no reason,” she says. “I’ve gone to doctors, they did all the tests, I’m not allergic to anything, but most days I break out in hives.”
Not at work, though. The hives come in the evenings, at her home, less than a mile from the factory. For much of the year, it dominates the scenery from Gerard’s front porch.
She doesn’t sit there much any more.
“It’s just this reminder. Not only is Walter not here but … what did that do to him? And what is it doing to my family?”
Sheila Ivory had always sung in church. Choir was a part of her identity. It was also how she found out something was wrong.
Sheila found, over a few months, singing gospel started to become harder and harder. She felt a persistent tickle any time she tried – that feeling of having to cough.
“I started out as a soprano. Now I just sounded like a frog,” she says.
Finally, she went to the doctor, where tests revealed a small nodule on the right side of her thyroid. She had moved to St John the Baptist, a few miles from the fenceline, only a few years earlier in 2003. “I didn’t have any of these problems until I moved here,” Sheila says.
Doctors decided to monitor the growth, taking regular ultrasounds and biopsies along the way. It continued to swell for a decade until eventually they were forced to remove it. The pathology came back negative, but doctors discovered another growth on the other side. The following year in 2015 Sheila had that one removed too, and the news was less reassuring: it was cancer.
Around the same time, she also developed a tumour on her adrenal gland. She remembers nearly collapsing from the hormonal surges it triggered. “Sweat was just pouring off of me, standing in air conditioning. If I would turn over in my sleep, my heart would just start racing,” she says.
“I do associate it with the chemicals. Louisiana is the dumping ground for America.”
So far doctors haven’t had to do anything besides remove the three growths, but in March one of Ivory’s blood tests detected thyroid cancer. An ultrasound revealed two more nodules on either side of Ivory’s neck which, for the moment, doctors believe are benign.
She waits to see what happens next. But Sheila has already lost something precious. She’s no longer able to sing in her choir.
Toxic America: Is modern life poisoning us?
Weedkiller in your breakfast cereal. Contaminated drinking water. Carcinogenic chemicals in your furniture.
Americans are routinely exposed to dangerous chemicals that have long been banned in countries such as the UK, Germany and France. Of the 40,000 chemicals used in consumer products in the US, according to the EPA, only one percent have been tested for human safety.
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Written by Oliver Laughland and Jamiles Lartey for The Guardian Photographs by Julie Dermansky. ~ May 7, 2019
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