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---March 11, 1992---
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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, Ph.D.

[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;

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