Environmental Health News

What's Working

  • Garden Mosaics projects promote science education while connecting young and old people as they work together in local gardens.
  • Hope Meadows is a planned inter-generational community containing foster and adoptive parents, children, and senior citizens
  • In August 2002, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) Board voted to ban soft drinks from all of the district’s schools

#276 - Was Anyone Harmed At Love Canal, 10-Mar-1992

Not long ago at a conference for science writers, a distinguished
health reporter from the WASHINGTON POST stood at the podium and told
the audience, "The weight of the evidence showed no effects at Love
Canal." No one in the audience raised a hand to say, "Wait a minute--
what about the published studies that showed health damage to the
children?" The audience accepted without question the claim that no one
had been harmed at Love Canal.

Evidently none of the 100 scientists and journalists in the room--
including the gentleman at the podium--knew about any of the five
separate studies, two of them by the New York Department of Health[1,2]
and three by independent scientists,[3,4,5] showing that children at
Love Canal suffered an excessive number of major and minor birth
defects, chronic illnesses, and stunted growth. It was a shocking
revelation of ignorance among science writers and scientists, and an
impressive demonstration of how easily we ignore history.

Love Canal is a trench in the ground nearly two miles long, named for
William Love who began digging in 1896. He hoped to carry barge traffic
from the upper to the lower Niagara River, providing a way for ships to
bypass Niagara Falls. For various reasons, Mr. Love's canal was never
completed. Starting in 1942, the canal was filled with nearly 21,000
tons (42 million pounds) of benzene, toluene, chloroform,
trichloroethylene, tetrachloroethylene, hexane, xylenes and leftovers
from the manufacture of pesticides, such as hexachlorocyclohexane
(Lindane) and hexachlorocyclopentadiene (used in the manufacture of
Mirex and Kepone). As of 1980, U.S. government scientists had
identified 248 individual chemicals in the Love Canal dump--a typical
stew of refined petroleum products and chlorinated hydrocarbons.

In 1953, when the canal couldn't hold any more toxic waste, dirt was
piled over it, and the land was sold to the local government for $1.00.
The local government then built a school on top of the dump.

By 1977 chemicals could be detected in neighborhood creeks, sewer
lines, and soil, in sump pumps in the basements of homes, and in the
indoor air of those same homes. Chemicals had moved through the soil
and seeped through basement walls. Pesticide residues bubbled up on the
school playground.

It wasn't the health department that discovered the problem. It was
young mothers talking to other young mothers about miscarriages, still
births, and birth defects in their babies. One young woman named Lois
Gibbs watched her children come down with one illness after another--
rashes, serious breathing difficulties, near-fatal blood disorders. She
screwed up her courage and started knocking on her neighbors' doors,
asking if anything similar was happening in their families. An informal
tally showed roughly half the babies born in homes near Love Canal
during a 2-year period were born with birth defects. This finally got
the state health department's attention and in 1978 the department
published its first study[1] showing an unusually high number of
miscarriages among Love Canal women. New York state then began to
evacuate 325 families.

Subsequently state health department researchers Nicholas Vianna and
Adele Polan[2] studied families living along areas called swales--
natural depressions in the ground that tended to carry more water than
average and thus provided pathways for chemicals seeping away from the
toxic canal. They examined birth weights of infants born to families
along the swales during 1940-1978. They found a significant excess of
low-birth-weight babies born during the time when dumping was occurring
(1940-1953). No such excess was evident for later years.

Low birth weight is not a trivial matter. Low weight at birth is
associated with a lifetime of other problems--chronic diseases and
learning disabilities.

Lynn R. Goldman[4] studied a larger population--all the residents of
single-family homes in the entire Love Canal neighborhood, an area
three times as large as that studied by Vianna and Polan. They found an
excess of low-birth-weight babies born during the period 1963-1980,
with a prevalence of 16 percent low birth-weight along the swales and
10 percent in the non-swale areas, compared to 4.8% in a control area
further away.

Beverly Paigen and others conducted a general health survey with
interviewers inquiring about physician-diagnosed complaints of the
parents of 523 Love Canal and 440 control children. They found a
significant excess of seizures, learning disabilities, hyperactivity,
eye irritation, skin rashes, abdominal pain, and incontinence in Love
Canal children.[5] (See RHWN #104.)

The same researchers measured factors related to physical growth of 493
Love Canal children and 428 control children using technicians (who
were unaware of the children's place of residence) to conduct the
measurements.[3] Of the Love Canal children, the 172 who were born
there and had spent at least 75% of their lives there were
significantly shorter for their age than were the control children.
Female children from Love Canal began to menstruate an average of 8
months later than the control children, though this difference was not
statistically significant (meaning, it could be due to chance
variation). The physical differences could not be explained by chronic
illnesses, race, height of parents, socioeconomic status, nutrition,
stress, or birth weight. Because children who were born at Love Canal
and lived there longer had a more pronounced reduction in their growth
(compared to children who lived there less time), which scientists
would term a "dose-response relationship," the researchers concluded
that exposure to chemicals was the most likely cause of the growth
retardation.

Taken together, these studies leave little doubt that living near Love
Canal had negative effects on reproduction, development, growth and
health of children.[6] Researchers from the National Academy of
Sciences recently reviewed these studies and validated their
conclusions.[7]

Studies of a population of wild rodents at Love Canal[8] also revealed
significant effects on growth and longevity. Rowley and others studied
the natural population of voles in area I immediately adjacent to the
dump, in area II close to the dump, and area III about one kilometer
(0.6 miles) away. Voles are small mouse-like mammals. The average life
expectancy after weaning for voles in areas I and II was 23.6 and 29.2
days, respectively, compared to 48.8 days for the control animals in
area III. Liver and adrenal gland weights among female voles, and
seminal vesicle weights in males, were significantly reduced in area I
compared to area III. Chlorinated hydrocarbons such as
hexachlorocyclohexane were measurable in voles from area I and II but
not from Area III.

The 42 million pounds of chemicals have never been removed from Love
Canal. Instead, a clay "cap" was placed over the dump to try to keep
rain out, to reduce the tendency for the chemicals to move through the
soil. Surface soils were scraped away and placed in another "capped"
chemical dump. Now Governor Mario Cuomo has given his personal approval
to a plan to move poor families back into homes near Love Canal.
Evidently, the purpose of the plan is to broadcast a message across
America, a message developed by the chemical industry and sanctioned by
leading politicians of both parties: "Love Canal is safe even though it
was never cleaned up. Chemical dumps are something our children can
live with." If the evident ignorance of science writers and scientists
is any indication, the plan is working.

--Peter Montague

====

[1] New York State Office of Public Health, and Governor's Love Canal
Interagency Task Force. LOVE CANAL: PUBLIC HEALTH TIME BOMB. Albany,
NY: New York State Office of Public Health, 1978.

[2] Nicholas J. Vianna and Adele K. Polan, "Incidence of Low Birth
Weight Among Love Canal Residents," SCIENCE Vol. 226 No. 4679 (December
7, 1984), pgs. 1217-1219.

[3] Beverly Paigen and others, "Growth of Children Living Near the
Hazardous Waste Site, Love Canal," HUMAN BIOLOGY Vol. [59] (June,
1987), pgs. 489-508.

[4] Lynn R. Goldman and others, "Low Birth Weight, Prematurity and
Birth Defects in Children Living Near the Hazardous Waste Site, Love
Canal." HAZARDOUS WASTE & HAZARDOUS MATERIALS Vol. 2 No. 2 (1985), pgs.
209-223.

[5] Beverly Paigen and others, "Prevalence of Health Problems in
Children Living Near Love Canal," HAZARDOUS WASTE & HAZARDOUS MATERIALS
Vol. 2 No. 1 (1985), pgs. 23-43.

[6] Beverly Paigen and Lynn R. Goldman, "Lessons from Love Canal, New
York, U.S.A: The role of the public and the use of birth weights,
growth, and indigenous wildlife to evaluate health risk," in J.B.
Andelman and D.W. Underhill, editors, HEALTH EFFECTS FROM HAZARDOUS
WASTE SITES (Chelsea, MI: Lewis, 1987), pgs. 177-192.

[7] Anthony B. Miller and others, ENVIRONMENTAL EPIDEMIOLOGY VOL. 1;
PUBLIC HEALTH AND HAZARDOUS WASTES (Washington, DC: National Academy
Press, 1991).

[8] M.H. Rowley and others, "Use of small mammals (voles) to assess a
hazardous waste site at Love Canal, Niagara Falls, New York," ARCHIVES
OF ENVIRONMENTAL CONTAMINATION AND TOXICOLOGY Vol. 12 (1983), pgs. 383-
397.

Descriptor terms: love canal; health; lois gibbs; birth defects; low
birth weight; relocation; landfilling; remedial action;