Institute at Brown for Environment and Society

Christy MoMo was in high school when she first learned about Cancer Alley: a haven for chemical manufacturers whose local residents, who are disproportionately low-income and Black, have been reporting inexplicable illnesses and high rates of death for over 50 years. 

Mo wanted to know, “How could there be a place in Louisiana called ‘Cancer Alley,’ of all things—[an issue] that has been going on for decades and decades—and people are still just debating it?” 

As an environmental health concentrator at Brown, Mo decided to explore the role of science in environmental justice in Louisiana, and how different stakeholders in the Cancer Alley are using that science to support their view on the situation. 

“The pollution that is coming from factories is pretty visible,” she says. “You can smell it, you can sometimes see the flares, you can hear the explosions sometimes. The issue is that there isn't a whole lot of peer-reviewed scientific literature backing up what [stakeholders] are saying.”

Initially, Mo had planned to conduct her research in Louisiana; but COVID forced her to stay in Providence and do her data-gathering remotely. 

Although it was challenging to conduct interviews with those affected by Cancer Alley from afar, Mo drew strongly on her connections as a local and emphasized her role as a student to gain her interviewees’ trust. 

“I'm trying to learn about the situation and help as many people as I can understand what's going on, so that there might be a better resolution to all the contention,” she says. “That’s definitely the biggest reason why so many people were willing to talk to me.”

Mo’s classes at Brown, especially her junior research methods class, helped her understand how to approach difficult conversations without letting them become clouded by her own judgement. Learning the foundations and science of environmental health also allowed her to see where her interviewees were coming from, and observe different sides of the issue. 

“Environmental justice is the field that will ensure that people who have decision-making power now don't repeat the same mistakes that have been made for generations,” she says. 

Mo hopes that her research will help inform a solution to Louisiana’s Cancer Alley. 

“I think it's hard for us as a society to address environmental issues,” she says, “if we're not really understanding that it's so connected to every aspect of our lives.”