July 25, 2007
Health threats action urged *** Community says industry to blame, Richard Burgess; Acadiana Bureau
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CALCASIEU PARISH - Residents in a Calcasieu Parish community who say they suffer from pollution-related health problems are asking the federal government to relocate their families, provide medical treatment and place a moratorium on industrial facilities in the area.
Mossville residents made the demands in a report issued Tuesday that alleges a clear link between the chemical plants and refineries near the community and toxic chemicals that have been found in the blood of some who live there.
"We, like other communities in the country, have a right to a clean and safe environment," said Mossville resident David Prince, a member of the community group Mossville Environmental Action Now.
The report by MEAN and the New Orleans-based Advocates for Environmental Human Rights compares the specific chemicals found in the blood of Mossville residents with chemicals that local industrial plants release into the environment.
New Iberia chemist and environmental justice advocate Wilma Subra, who reviewed the data for the residents, contends there is a clear connection.
Industrial groups and federal agencies have disputed claims about the threat of industrial plants in the area.
The issue of pollution in Mossville, a historically African-American community with a population of about 1,000, first attracted attention in the 1990s.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Service's Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry conducted blood tests on Mossville residents in the late 1990s and again in 2001.
The studies found that some residents had elevated levels of dioxins - a group of chemical compounds linked to cancer, reproductive problems, developmental problems in children and other health issues.
The initial tests prompted then-Gov. Mike Foster to create a task force to address the issue, saying at the time that he wanted "a plan of action put in place to remedy the situation."
But residents have complained for years that nothing has been done to follow through on the earlier studies and identify the source of dioxin.
Steve Dearwent, an epidemiologist with the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, said no follow-up was done to identify the source because the agency concluded the elevated blood levels of dioxins were most likely linked to exposure several years ago.
Dearwent said the tests showed elevated dioxin levels primarily in residents 45 and older and normal levels in residents under 45.
"If there was a current exposure problem in the Mossville community, we would have detected it in the younger residents," Dearwent said.
He said no further studies are planned of residents in the area because the agency does not believe dioxin exposure is a current problem.
State agencies, while involved early on in attempts to identify possible dioxin sources, are also not involved in any current studies of residents there.
State Department of Health and Hospitals spokesman Bob Johannessen said the agency conducted a health risk assessment in 2000 in an attempt to determine how Mossville residents might have been exposed to dioxin. He said the study, which looked primarily at food, offered no clear answers.
"It's almost impossible, when it comes to environmental exposure, to link an effect to a cause," Johannessen said.
Still, residents in Mossville, with 14 industrial facilities nearby, point to the evidence of their lives.
Five residents on a conference call with media representatives on Tuesday all spoke of health problems suffered by themselves or relatives.
Prince said his wife died of ovarian cancer, his oldest daughter had to have a cyst removed from an ovary and his three other children also suffered health problems.
Shirley Johnson said she was healthy when she moved to Mossville 10 years ago but was hospitalized about five years ago after exposure to chemicals that leaked during an accident at the area plants.
"Every night I sleep with a breathing machine that is extremely uncomfortable," she said.
The residents also point to tests that found dioxins in house dust, soil, fruits, vegetables and fish.
Haki Vincent recalled the bountiful gardens his family once grew.
"Now, we have to grow our vegetables in pots with soil we have to pay for," he said.
Waterways in the parish have long been known to suffer from industrial pollutants, and in the 1990s the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had considered designating the Calcasieu River and adjoining waterways as a Superfund site.
Local officials strongly objected to the move, but the EPA continues to study the area and work with local industries to develop remediation projects.
The state currently advises against long-term consumption of fish in some area waterways because of contaminants.
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