Nancy Rabalais, executive director of the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium, was one of 10 recipients of a $100,000 2011 Heinz Foundation grant for her research mapping the "dead zone" growing in the Gulf of Mexico. The Chauvin, La.-based consortium was founded in 1979 and studies Louisiana's marine environments and coastal life. Rabalais' research has found that significant depletion of oxygen levels in the Gulf began as early as 1950, when nitrogen fertilizers used on farms were part of runoff into the Mississippi River and the Gulf.
As of 2010, the dead zone had increased to 7,700 square miles, making it the largest dead zone in the U.S. and second largest in the world. Rabalais currently is studying the impact of the BP oil disaster on oxygen levels.
Other Heinz award recipients include Sandra Steingraber, who studies "cancer clusters" (when U.S. cancer registries show high concentrations of cancer reports in one particular area) in relation to the Toxic Release Inventory — her findings (in her book Living Downstream) draw a relationship between reports of cancer and proximity to industrial sites. Steingraber pledged to use her award to fight against hydraulic fracking (pumping pressurized fluid into rock layers to release petroleum and gas).