The Water Collaborative of Greater New Orleans conducted a study last summer on the level of chemicals flowing in the Mississippi River, the central source of drinking water for many communities in southeast Louisiana. 

The results were not comforting.

The researchers found high levels of PFAS, a group of synthetic, potentially harmful chemicals used in a wide variety of household products and industrial processes. They are often called “forever chemicals” because they break down very slowly over time and course through the bloodstreams of 97% percent of Americans.

The Environmental Protection Agency says exposure to high levels of the chemicals can result in decreased fertility or increased high blood pressure in pregnant women, developmental effects or delays in children, and increased risk of some cancers, including prostate, kidney, and testicular cancers.

“We found numbers of PFAS that were 200 to 268 times what the EPA said was safe for our drinking water,” Rebecca Malpass, the policy and research director for The Water Collaborative, told a group of residents and environmental advocates who gathered recently a the St. James Parish library to hear the report. “Anytime we wash our dishes, anytime we wash our clothing, it’s going back out there and it’s just this perpetual cycle.”

There is currently no regulation for PFAS in drinking water and no proven method to remove them.

The issue has an outsized impact on the lives of African Americans, who are 75 percent more likely than white Americans to live in fence-line communities adjacent to industrial factories that produce the chemicals, according to research from The Water Collaborative.

Twin sisters Joy and Jo Banner are environmental justice advocates who have lived in St. John the Baptist Parish all their lives and have experienced the firsthand effects of living in what has come to be known as Cancer Alley. They are founders of The Descendants Project, a nonprofit organization created to support descendant communities in Louisiana’s river parishes and to dismantle the legacies of slavery. 

“We are not a sacrifice zone, but continually we are the ones that are sacrificed,” said Jo Banner, talking about how the promises of jobs by chemical plants has helped persuade state and local officials to allow the plants to operate near residential communities that are often Black or poor.

An 85-mile-long section of the Mississippi River from Baton Rouge to New Orleans features 150 petrochemical plants and oil companies in operation. This industrial corridor has provided jobs and revenue but also engulfed communities of color with pollution and toxic water waste.

The fight for environmental justice to improve the air quality, development and economy in these communities has been ongoing for decades. 

Jessica Dandridge, executive director for The Water Collaborative, pointed out that while many people may look at air quality, development or how energy is impacting communities, there has been less concern about the quality of the water that people use every day. 

Holly Laviolette, research assistant at The Water Collaborative, demonstrates how water samples are taken for testing. Credit: Nigell Moses/Verite

“We can last days without food and we can last only a week without water,” Dandrige said at the community meeting. 

“We have to start thinking about the importance of our drinking water, our accessibility of that water, the affordability of that water, and more so how we’re going to live with it because that’s our future.”

A major challenge in addressing the water issues in rural and marginalized communities is funding. 

Emily Volkmar is vice president of community relationships and operations for Aqualateral, an organization working to understand and invest in solutions for secure water. She says  connecting with residents and including them in the conversation can impact “how solutions are financed or how technology is engineered to solve these water crises.”  

Advocates hope the Water Collaborative report will bring awareness to level and dangers of pollutants that exist in our everyday drinking water supply and spur funding for more testing.

“Life and livelihood is not the same thing, it should never be a scale which we have to balance,” Joy Banner said. “This is our health.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said researchers “found numbers of PFAS that were 200,000 to 268,000 times what the EPA said was safe for our drinking water.” The findings were of levels 200 to 268 times above the EPA standards. The story has been updated.

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New Orleans native Nigell Moses graduated summa cum laude from Xavier University of Louisiana with a bachelor’s degree in Mass Communication. She is a published contributing writer, with stories in The...