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The Faces of Pollution : As Cancer, Miscarriages Mount, Louisiana Wonders If It Is a 'National Sacrifice Zone'

January 24, 1988|DAVID MARANISS and MICHAEL WEISSKOPF | The Washington Post

ST. GABRIEL, La. — Kay Gaudet, the village pharmacist, started keeping her list a year ago. The first name on it was Peggy, her younger sister. The next nine were friends and neighbors. All had been pregnant about the same time, but there were no babies to show for it, only the private agony of miscarriage.

Gaudet was concerned and curious. Was it coincidence? How many other women in St. Gabriel, population 2,100, had suffered similar fates? Gaudet spread the word at her drugstore, at the Roman Catholic church where she prayed each day, and up and down the oak-lined river roads: Anyone who has had a miscarriage, tell Kay.

Week by week, the list grew: Alice, Angie, Belinda, Charlotte, Dayna, Dell, Elizabeth, Emma, Irma, Karen, Matlin, Pam, Rhonda, Sandy, Sherri, Tammy, Terri, Tina, Tyra, Vera.

Today the names total 63.

85-Mile Corridor

St. Gabriel lies along an 85-mile industrial corridor where about one-fifth of America's petrochemicals are produced. It begins in Baton Rouge, with the giant Tinkertoy maze of pipes, stacks and catcrackers in the shadows of Huey Long's skyscraper Capitol, and follows the Mississippi River down to the southeastern rim of New Orleans.

The air, ground and water along this corridor are so full of carcinogens, mutagens and embryotoxins that an environmental-health specialist defined living here as "a massive human experiment," the state attorney general called the pollution "a modern form of barbarism," and a chemical-union leader now refers to it as "the national sacrifice zone."

As it rolls south, the Mississippi is an endless progression of wide loops. Seen from the sky, they resemble colossal question marks--right-side up and upside down--each quizzical turn lined with petrochemical plants, refineries and toxic-waste dumps, and dotted at bottom or top by a town. Question marks loom large in many of these towns, not just in the poetic sweep of the river, but in the life-and-death concerns of the people.

In Plaquemine, they wonder why Tiger Joe Gulotta and six other people came down with lung, brain or kidney cancer on one small span of Delacroix Street. Their parish (or county), Iberville, is one of 10 in the southeastern one-third of Louisiana that rank in the top 10% of lung cancer deaths nationwide, and although the percentage of cigarette smokers here is high, public health specialists think there might be more to it. Tiger Joe, who died of lung cancer three years ago, never smoked.

In Chalmette, Elda Trapini would like to know why the street she lives on, Jacobs Drive, became known as "Cancer Alley," with 15 cancer victims in two blocks, and why, half a mile away on Decomine Street, her sister and nephew were among seven cancer victims on one block.

On Coco Road in Geismar, whose yellowish-green industrial plume can be seen 20 miles away, they ask why cats and dogs have lost their fur, why aluminum screens rust soon after they are installed and why teen-age and middle-age men are dying of kidney and testicular cancer.

In the old company town of Norco, naturalist Milton Cambre puzzles over the disappearance of Spanish moss from the live oak stands and crawfish from the ponds, puddles, marshes and canals.

And in St. Gabriel, they want to know why there are so many names on Gaudet's list.

Her figures mean that one of every three pregnancies there since 1983 has ended in fetal death, more than double the Louisiana average. As the numbers grew, Gaudet and many others here began to think what was once unthinkable: Perhaps the local chemical plants--18 of them within five miles of town, eight more across the river in Plaquemine--had something to do with it.

Nearly 400 million pounds of toxic pollutants are released into the atmosphere here each year, including 506,000 pounds of vinyl chloride, an ingredient of plastic that is a carcinogen and suspected embryotoxin.

This hypothesis was not easily posed in St. Gabriel. For decades, the town's economic health has been tied to the chemical and petroleum refinery companies lured to Louisiana after World War II, providing half of its manufacturing income.

Some husbands of the miscarrying women worked in those plants, which employ one of every five laborers in the state. Gaudet grew up in a company village at the huge Exxon refinery in Baton Rouge, where her father still operates the pipes. From birth, she was accustomed to the sights and smells of heavy industry.

But to be familiar, she decided, is not to be immune.

"I'm not trying to be a hell-raiser or a goody-goody; I just think we have a situation that needs answering," said Gaudet, 37, whose pharmacy just past the stoplight on Route 74 has become a clearinghouse and meeting place.

"When I first started with the list, some people wanted me to say right away that the chemicals were at fault. But I didn't want to say anything that I didn't know to be true. Then last summer, it started to get out of control. When four women miscarried in eight days, I realized that something was very wrong here.

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