Magazine article Management Review

Grassroots Crusader

Magazine article Management Review

Grassroots Crusader

Article excerpt

What happens in a small town when a whistle-blower takes the community's largest employers? The story of St. Gabriel, La., population 2,100, is a case in point.

In 1986, pharmacist Kay Gaudet noticed an alarming trend: St. Gabriel women had an unusually high rate of miscarriage. Gaudet started to track the miscarriages. To date she has recorded over 80 of them-a figure well above the national average.

In addition, local cancer rates are so high that the stretch of land where St. Gabriel is located, between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, has been nicknamed "Cancer Alley."

Locals had long blamed the high cancer rate on nearby chemical plants. St. Gabriel's home parish of East Iberville has 15 plants in operation-some only a few miles from the town line. Convinced that the mysterious miscarriages were also being caused by plant emissions, Gaudet set her sights on the chemical industry. She lobbied for an investigation by Louisiana authorities, but to no avail. Finally, her quest for the truth cumulated with a Sierra Club press conference in Washington, D.C.

This maneuver got Gaudet the attention she had been seeking: Before long, Louisiana's Department of Health and Hospitals commissioned a Tulane University study to examine the causes of miscarriages in East Iberville parish. But study results showed no clear connection between the miscarriages and the chemical plants. In addition, the Louisiana Chemical Association commissioned Dr. Otto Wong, an epidemiologist who is also the executive vice president of ENSR Health Sciences in Alameda, Calif., to examine the area's abnormally high rates of cancer. Again, initial results suggested that the chemical plants have not contributed to the area's cancer rates.

Is this a case of misplaced finger pointing? Or could the studies be wrong? Gaudet remains convinced that the industry is at fault-and she offers some compelling criticism of the Tulane miscarriage study. "I don't think they [the Tulane researchers] reached the black community here adequately," she says. According to their study, the rate for stillbirths [among black infants] is three times that of whites. And yet they claim that the rates for miscarriages among blacks in this area is lower than the rate for whites. …

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