Here in the heart of what is commonly called Louisiana’s chemical corridor, a woman who three years ago questioned the relationship between illness and chemical contamination may be paying a price for her candor.
In 1987, Kay Gaudet, the pharmacist in this city’s only drugstore, asked state officials to investigate the area’s miscarriage rate after logging about 65 miscarriages out of a population of 2,100 in a 26-month period. According to Gaudet, one of every three pregnancies in that period ended in a miscarriage.
Today, Gaudet’s drugstore is closed, a victim of a declining clientele that some people believe was part of an economic boycott started by several area chemical plants. The industry denies that there was an organized boycott. Meanwhile, a study conducted by Tulane University in New Orleans, which said that St. Gabriel’s miscarriage rate is not abnormal, remains the subject of a heated debate in Louisiana.
“There was a boycott, but it was never officially announced,” said Peggy Hoffman, who suffered a miscarriage. “Kay was a target, she was harassed, and some customers told her they could no longer come to her drugstore because pressure was being put on them by their employers.”
Gaudet has since taken a teaching job in Baton Rouge and no longer talks to the press about the miscarriage controversy. “I think she’s very discouraged,” said her husband, Chris Gaudet, a pharmacist at the local prison.
St. Gabriel and the surrounding Iberville and Ascension parishes are the home to 15 heavy chemical plants which, along with the dozen or so other plants, release as much as 200 million pounds of carcinogens such as benzene, ethylene dichloride and carbon tetrachloride annually.
St. Gabriel, situated near the Mississippi River, where 120 more chemical plants and refineries dot the map, has been largely a company town since World War II, when petrochemical companies built refineries by the riverbank to be near shipping lines.
But, as the industries boomed throughout the 1970s and ‘80s, many environmentalists wondered what effect the toxic debris and smoky air were having on the local community. “This has long been a state with serious environmental problems,” said Darryl Malek-Wiley, a former president of the Louisiana chapter of the Sierra Club. “It only stands to reason that, with so many chemicals in our environment . . . there would eventually be serious ramifications with our health. I think Kay’s questions pointed in that direction and made a lot of people uncomfortable.”
The Tulane study, which was undertaken with state cooperation after Gaudet disclosed her miscarriage statistics, said that, out of 430 pregnancies in Iberville Parish between 1982 and 1987, 54 were documented miscarriages, an almost 13% rate, which one of the Tulane researchers, Jacqueline Clarkson, said was “well within the national miscarriage rate.”
But researchers for the Center for Environmental Health Studies in Boston this summer criticized the Tulane study as “fraught with problems” and said it “should be considered inconclusive.”
Officials of the Louisiana Chemical Assn. feel differently. “The study was well done, well executed and generally regarded as a model epidemiological study,” said Ed Flynn, health affairs coordinator with the association.
Almost all of the larger refineries sponsored Earth Day activities earlier this year and have implemented school programs designed to highlight the positive benefits that result from a large chemical-based industry.
“All we’ve tried to do is make people aware of the good we do,” said Richard Kleiner, a spokesman for the chemical association. “Generally . . . most . . . companies here are environmentally aware . . . . From 1988 to 1989, we reduced our emissions by about 38%, and that trend will continue.”
In St. Gabriel, however, where the night sky is bright with lights shining from the always busy chemical plants, some residents still harbor doubts. “Most of the companies have done everything they can think of to divert attention away from the real issues,” said Chris Gaudet. “And, by and large, they’ve been successful. A lot of people here worry about losing their jobs, they really don’t want to talk about what these plants might be doing to their health.”