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Children of the Delta PART III: Pollution, Poor Health Care Take Toll on the Delta

May 8, 1990

Undated (AP) _ By SCOTT McCARTNEY Associated Press Writer

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - Signs with skulls and cross-bones are posted now in Devil’s Swamp, but nothing warned Barbara Dixon’s husband of the dangers when he hunted and fished there in 1986, bringing home the bounty of this ″Sportsman’s Paradise.″

Mrs. Dixon loved the crawfish, the catfish and the rabbits, and ate them all while pregnant.

At age 3 weeks, her daughter began having seizures. Before her first birthday, tiny Emily was diagnosed with neuroblastoma, a rare cancer on her spinal cord. Before her fourth birthday, she had endured chemotherapy and three operations.

But Emily Dixon is one of the luckier victims in what locals call the ″cancer corridor″ for its concentration of chemical companies. She survived, and is considered 90 percent cured.

There’s no doubt in her mother’s mind the chemical companies are to blame.

″It’s easy to say they are ruining our water and doing this and that and it’s no big deal. But when you’re ruining our children, that’s something else,″ Mrs. Dixon said.

Across the Mississippi Delta region, which includes parts of Arkansas, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri and Tennessee, health and environmental problems are intertwined, and troubles abound.

They hit hardest, it seems, at those most vulnerable: the 3 million children of the Delta.

Robert Lingafelter runs a Mississippi program called Partners for Improved Nutrition and Health, which uses techniques developed in the Third World to fight the Delta’s sometimes Third World conditions.

He sees progress since the days, only 25 years ago, of ″Biafra-style malnutrition.″ And yet, ″in the face of what has not yet been done,″ he said, ″the Delta’s a national tragedy.″

Death rates in many counties by the river are higher than the national average. Along Louisiana’s chemical-producing region, cancer rates are higher than would normally be expected, though scientists have yet to establish a direct cause.

Poverty, teen-age motherhood and poor nutrition, along with doctor and nursing shortages, exact a toll on health, exacerbated by lax environmental laws and the heavy use of agricultural pesticides and other chemicals.

A January survey by the Washington-based Center for the Study of Social Policy ranked Mississippi and Louisiana 50th and 51st respectively on children’s health.

The United States has a national infant mortality rate of 10.7 per 1,000 live births; in the Delta, the rate is 12.5.

For years, Humphreys County, Miss., has had one of the highest infant mortality rates in the world - higher than Malaysia, French Guiana and other less-developed nations. Eight infants died in 1988, giving the county a rate of 33.2.

″We don’t really know why,″ said Lou Anne McLendon, the county’s public health nurse, who runs a clinic offering prenatal care and nutrition. But most of the mothers whose infants died did not take advantage of the prenatal care offered, she said.

One-third of the babies delivered last year were born to teen-agers, including 59 to mothers 13 and 14 years old, according to Dr. Alfio Rausa, a Greenwood, Miss., physician who oversees the Delta district for the state health department.

″Part of it is lack of education. No hope, no recreation,″ Rausa said. ″The family structure has broken down.″

Lake County, Tenn., population about 7,500, has only one doctor, who runs a clinic and serves as director of the health department, assistant director of the nursing home and county medical examiner.

″Should an emergency, such as cardiac arrest (or) multiple trauma occur, the chances of survival in Lake County are approximately zero,″ Dr. Renee Lamb said at a public hearing before the Lower Mississippi Delta Development Commission.

In many parts of the Delta, residents believe the polluted environment is as much a culprit for their ills as inadequate care.

They point to the dozens of sprawling, shiny plants tucked in the swampy Delta amid moss-covered trees - plants that spew chemicals, including known carcinogens, into the air and water.

Louisiana ranked 48th in an environmental health survey released in April by the Durham, N.C.-based Institute for Southern Studies. It was no surprise to those who live here.

″For decades the South, Louisiana, has taken its environment for granted,″ Louisiana Gov. Buddy Roemer said. ″We had to hustle so hard for jobs, people just gave up their environmental considerations.″

The Mississippi River not only provides drainage for two-thirds of the nation, but also is a disposal route for tons of chemicals and pollutants.

The river carries 213 million pounds of toxic chemicals through New Orleans each year, according to a two-year study by the environmental group Greenpeace.

Teresa Robert, who lives near the river in the middle of the so-called ″cancer corridor,″ remembers swimming in the river as a child almost 30 years ago.

″Now I would not think of sticking my foot in it,″ said Mrs. Robert, who formed an environmental group that blocked a planned waste dump in Ascension Parish. The parish already is home to three of Louisiana’s 11 ″Superfund″ sites targeted by the Environmental Protection Agency for cleanup.

Pharmacist Kay Gaudet in nearby St. Gabriel can chart her town’s health through the drugs she dispenses. In a nine-month period in 1986, Mrs. Gaudet discovered that the second most commonly prescribed drug was for breast cancer. Only this year has that drug made it into the top 200 drugs used nationwide.

″There’s no question in my mind what causes it, but if you try to find a smoking gun, it’s going to be impossible,″ she said.

The Louisiana Chemical Association, the trade group for the state’s largest industry, insists its products are not responsible for the high cancer rates. Residents’ penchant for spicy food, rich living, smoking and other factors all play a part, the group says.

Spokesman Richard Kleiner added, however, that the chemical companies know they have ″a lot of problems of the past to correct.″

St. Jude’s Hospital, an international center specializing in children’s cancer, ended up in Memphis, Tenn., in part because of the health problems of the children of the region.

Louisiana parents gather in support groups there and shake their heads in disbelief at their numbers in the waiting rooms.

But Dr. Elizabeth Thompson, St. Jude’s physician-in-chief, said researchers there, like others, have been unable to find a link between the chemical discharges and the high incidence of cancer.

Barbara Dixon says she doesn’t need proof. She brings Emily to testify in support of environmental bills, hoping lawmakers will reverse concessions to the chemical industry and tighten pollution controls.

She says she doesn’t want the plants to close because too many people depend on the jobs.

″I want them to be responsible,″ Mrs. Dixon said. ″I want them to stop saying the cost is too much to control our air quality or our water quality.

″What is the cost of my child’s life?″

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