Love Canal, in Niagara County, New York, is the place where the modern
toxics movement began. In 1896, William Love dug a canal nearly two
miles long, hoping to connect the upper and lower Niagara River. The
canal was abandoned before it ever carried traffic. In 1942, a chemical
company began using the abandoned canal as a dump, burying 19,000 cubic
yards of toxics in the long trench. Some time after 1953, ownership of
the land was transferred to the Niagara Falls Board of Education, which
built a school on top of the dump. In 1977, tests revealed toxic
chemicals seeping into the basements of homes near the canal. At first
it was mysterious and frightening; as it became better understood is
became even more frightening. Two hundred and forty eight different
chemicals were identified, 30 of them embryotoxins or fetotoxins, and
18 suspected teratogens. At least 34 of them cause cancer. FOR 100 OF
THE 248 CHEMICALS, NO TOXICOLOGICAL DATA WHATEVER COULD BE FOUND. In
1978 the state of New York found a high rate of miscarriages among
families in the first tier of homes fronting on the canal; authorities
declared a health emergency, closed the school on top of the dump, and
evacuated 235 families. The following year New York state authorities
evacuated families with pregnant women, or with children under 2 years
of age, from the southern half of the Love Canal neighborhood, which
was considered most heavily contaminated. In May, 1980 the federal
government offered evacuation to everyone in Love Canal.
(We state these facts as if they had a life of their own, as if
governments did these things spontaneously, without urging from anyone.
Nothing could be further from the truth. The story of Love Canal is one
of massive citizen struggle, and of victory against tremendous odds.
But that is a story for another time.)
Later in 1980, health researchers began formal studies of the children
living within a few hundred yards of Love Canal. They also studied the
outcomes of pregnancies. Their results, published in 1985, show the
dangers of doing health studies in what had become a political war
zone, but they also show the dangers of exposing children to even low
levels of modern chemicals.
The levels of a few chemicals were measured in homes; the levels were
1% or less of the allowable occupational standards. Of course
occupational standards are not set to protect the general public; they
are set to protect young, healthy males in the prime of life. The
general public contains large numbers of people who do not fit the
profile of employed males: many old people, many children, many people
with chronic illnesses, with allergies, with poor diets, and so forth.
This is why, for the general public, occupational standards are
entirely inappropriate as a measure of acceptable exposure.
In any case, despite living in Love Canal, the population under study
was not exposed to huge levels of exotic chemicals; however they WERE
exposed to more than the average, and they suffered the consequences.
Two different studies of the children of Love Canal reveal ill effects
among those who lived near the Canal vs. those who lived further away.
The authors point out correctly that the disease patterns they observe
do not prove that Love Canal caused the harm. However, reading these
studies will definitely convince you that, if you can, you'd be better
off avoiding contact with a wide range of organic solvents and
Two groups of people were studied: 239 children born to mothers exposed
to Love Canal chemicals while pregnant, and 707 controls (children from
the same city whose families were similar to the Love Canal families in
every respect expect where they lived). The two groups were
specifically matched for socioeconomic status, smoking, alcohol
consumption, and medication taken during pregnancy.
Unfortunately, the study was begun too late to include the 235 families
who were the first to be evacuated from Love Canal. Those families
COULD have been studied if New York State or the federal government had
been willing to spend the money to find the families and interview
them, but the resources were not available. In addition, children who
had died were excluded from the study. For these reasons, it is very
likely that the study underestimates the true effect of living near
Love Canal. Nevertheless, the study shows that low birth weight babies
were 2.3 times as likely to occur among homeowners living near Love
Canal, compared to the control group (11.1% vs. 4.8%). Serious birth
defects were twice as likely to occur among those living near the Canal
(12.1% vs. 6.2%).
The study of childrens' health involved 523 Love Canal children and 440
control children from the same city matched in every respect except
where they lived.
The study found seizures 2.5 times as prevalent among Love Canal kids
as among controls; learning disabilities were 1.5 times as prevalent;
hyperactivity was almost 3 times as prevalent; eye irritation was twice
as prevalent; skin rashes occurred twice as often; abdominal pain was
twice as prevalent; incontinence occurred three times as often. Thus by
seven health measures, living near Love Canal is associated with ill
health among children.
Behind these studies lies a political drama of Kafkaesque dimensions.
Health researchers at Love Canal who disagreed with the New York State
Health Department were demoted, transferred, or harassed. The Health
Department undertook studies which are still today totally secret; what
they studied, and how, has never been revealed. One tantalizing piece
of information appeared in SCIENCE magazine (Vol. 212 , pgs.
1404-1407) showing that lung cancer among Love Canal men was up 70%
compared to the average of New York State (excluding NY City), and
among Love Canal women it's up 100%. Yet the state still today refuses
to publish its data. The message is crystal clear: chemical exposures
of the general public by American industry give rise to sick children,
but also to state suppression of scientific data, and to loss of rights
by those who ask too many questions.
Bev Paigen, the chief health researcher at Love Canal, will tell you
one of the most important lessons is this: citizens need their own
access to resources and expertise. With control over their own experts,
citizens have a chance of learning what's happening and what they must
do; without it, citizens can be duped by the state. Hats off to Bev
Paigen, a gentle warrior for children and for the truth.
For further information, see: Lynn R. Goldman and others, "Low Birth
Weight, Prematurity and Birth Defects in Children Living Near the
Hazardous Waste Site, Love Canal," HAZARDOUS WASTE AND HAZARDOUS
MATERIALS, Vol. 2 (1985), pgs. 209-223; see also Beverly Paigen and
others, "Prevalence of Health Problems in Children Living Near Love
Canal," HAZARDOUS WASTE AND HAZARDOUS MATERIALS, Vol. 2 (1985), pgs.
23-43. An even-handed discussion of the political attacks on the health
researchers by New York state authorities appears in Beverly Paigen's
"Controversy at Love Canal," originally published in THE HASTINGS
CENTER REPORT (June, 1982), from the Institute of Society, Ethics, and
the Life Sciences in Hastings-on-Hudson, NY; we have been unable to
locate the Institute, but reprints are still available from Dr. Paigen
who is a research biologist with the Bruce Lyon Laboratory, Children's
Hospital Medical Center, 7474 East 52nd St., Oakland, CA 94609; phone
Descriptor terms: love canal; niagara county, ny; public health;
studies; seizures; learning disabilities; hyperactivity; eye
irritation; skin rashes; lung cancer;