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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, 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 ro: Anyone who has had a miscarriage, tell Kay. 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. Tiger Joe, who died of lung cancer three years ago, never smoked.

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. Her figures mean that one of every three pregnancies there since has ended in fetal death, more than double the Louisiana average.

As the s grew, Gaudet and many others here began to think what was once unthinkable: Perhaps the local chemical plants of them within five miles of town, eight more across the river in Plaquemine--had something to do with it. Nearly million pounds of toxic pollutants are released into the atmosphere here each year, includingpounds of vinyl chloride, an ingredient of plastic that is a carcinogen and suspected embryotoxin. This hypothesis was not easily posed in St.

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. 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.

I had to raise the question, so I did. Gaudet and her husband, Chris, have two healthy little girls. The oldest, Christine, 9, has watched her mother so carefully over the last year that she knows the issues, sometimes pretending that she is a television reporter. That question is being explored by the Tulane School of Environmental Health, but officials there do not expect to solve the mystery. A few studies done in the United States, Canada and England show an abnormally high rate of spontaneous abortions and birth defects among women whose husbands work near vinyl chloride, or who live downwind from vinyl chloride polymerization plants.

Once, when asked about the St. They say the chemical plants are causing the miscarriages, but they have no proof. But then I would have no way to prove that. The chemical corridor was hewn from a simple rural society in a flat, semitropical wedge of the Mississippi Basin.

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Vast sugar cane plantations, worked first by slaves, then by tenant farmers, enriched the aristocratic owners of French descent who lived in mansions and enjoyed the society of New Orleans a short steamboat ride away. Enclaves grew up in the shadow of those estates, pockets of poor blacks and Acadians who fished, hunted and trapped in the bayous and settled on streets named for their families. When World War II sparked an oil and gas boom elsewhere in the state, industry put its refineries along the river with its shipping lanes.

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Petrochemicals, made with petroleum provided by refineries and with salt, sulfur and water provided by nature, followed easily. Today, the river is lined with petrochemical plants and seven oil refineries, nearly one for every half-mile of the Mississippi. The jobs and money they brought to 10 river parishes transformed one of the poorest, slowest-growing sections of Louisiana into communities of brick houses and shopping centers. But they also brought pollution. The narrow corridor absorbs more toxic substances annually than do most entire states: carcinogens such as benzene, carbon tetrachloride and ethylene dichloride; experimental mutagens or fetal poisons such as toluene, ethylene oxide and chloroform.

Coast Guard divers retrieving sediment samples from a bayou in suffered second-degree burns on their hands. Gabriel, Geismar and Plaquemine alone square miles--can pollute the air with as much as 25 million pounds per year of these chemicals and dump 75 million pounds of industrial wastes into the Mississippi, according to studies. Another 3. Despite its long-term dilution in the environment, the corridor pollution leaves telltale tracks. In the s, the Environmental Protection Agency found 66 pollutants in New Orleans drinking water and 31 lethal chemicals in the air of Plaquemine.

The ground water of 23 industrial sites along the river is saturated with toxic materials, burrowing toward the drinking-water aquifers of communities served by wells. Such a region might be expected to resemble a congested, sooty notch on the Rust Belt. Not the chemical corridor, with its neat neighborhoods and forests of shiny pipes. Pollution registers quietly here--in the oily taste of New Orleans water, which Cajun connoisseurs complain can spoil everything from bourbon to red beans and rice; in the blackened leaves of fruit trees; in the acrid odor and white particulate fallout from the Murphy Oil Refinery in Chalmette; in the evacuation of the town of Good Hope.

For 10 years, residents there, including Charles and Barbara Robicheaux, kept their suitcases packed to flee monthly fires at a local refinery. They would meet at the Presbyterian church, where they kept their cars facing the river--the path of escape.

The refinery bought out the Robicheaux family and other residents in the early s, and today Good Hope consists of a few abandoned structures and weeds. From whole communities, the disruption devolves to the individual trauma of Jesse Billings, an asthmatic from Plaquemine, who was felled while riding her lawn mower last August by a bluish cloud of chlorine, which, she said, was released without warning by the Dow Chemical plant yards from her back yard.

Her thick-skinned defense is de rigueur in the chemical corridor, where pollution is woven into life patterns much the way noise becomes part of communities in the path of jetliners. But the threat of catastrophic disease has turned these river settlements into a corridor of fear. More detailed, scientific lists document cancer death rates that grew as the chemical corridor grew. By the late s, the area had enjoyed and endured 15 to 20 years of industrialization, the estimated latency period for carcinogens. Mortality rates have increased 2. Studies by Dr. Marise S. Industry officials say the studies are flawed because they are based on death certificates that often contain erroneous data.

Walter Hulon, associate medical director of Ethyl Corp. Now we are standing back and seeing what the outcome will be. The question in St. Gabriel and some neighboring towns is not what, but how bad, the outcome will be. In Plaquemine, Etta Lee Gulotta started assessing the damage three years ago. Her husband, Tiger Joe, healthy all his life, died suddenly of lung cancer, and Etta Lee surveyed other households on her 3-block street. Seven cancers, four of them fatal. Then she canvassed within a 5-block radius.

Forty more cancers. Many of the victims were young. She has heard some experts pin the cancers on smoking, but Gulotta knows that Tiger Joe never smoked. She also knows that since Dow Chemical opened in the s, and other companies followed, the lightning bugs she caught as a little girl in Plaquemine have disappeared. So have the dragonflies and the river shrimp, once plentiful.

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