Lois Marie Gibbs and the Love Canal

Exposing the Hidden Health Dangers of the Site

Who are we talking about?

Lois Marie Gibbs, a mother of a teenage son who lived in a neighborhood situated on the old Love Canal digging site. Like her, others had complained of odors and substances around their yards and the school playground. But when she noticed that her son was repeatedly getting sick because they lived so close to a landfill, she approached the School Board with physicians' recommendations of her son to transfer schools, and also questioned the safety of the school's location. When the Board denied his transferring because of their statement that if these substances were causing him to be sick, then his whole neighborhood should have also gotten sick, and they wouldn't close the school because of one sick kid. This is what inspired Gibbs to expose the whole truth about the safety of the Love Canal digging zone, and lead other concerned members of her neighborhood.
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Where is this located?

The Love Canal site was located in Niagara Falls, NY. Its construction began in
1892 when William T. Love proposed to connect the upper and lower Niagara
River, by digging a canal six to seven miles long. This was in hopes of eventually creating a man-made waterfall on the Niagara River, supplying cheap power. But once the country entered the Panic of 1893, the partially completed project kept being pushed back and back.

Almost 30 years later, in 1920, the site became a municipal and chemical disposal site for Hooker Chemical Corporation, a subsidiary of Occidental Petroleum. The city of Niagara Falls began to use it as a landfill too. In 1953, however, the company covered the land with dirt, and sold it to the Board of Education for a dollar. Even though they clearly stated a "warning" of the chemical wastes buried on the property, the Board of Education paid no attention to the potential risks of these chemicals, and started constructing the 99th Street Elementary School on the site in 1954. That's when it all began...

Exposing the Truth with a Little Research

After all the families were evacuated from the area, Gibbs, representing the Love Canal Homeowners' Association, met with cancer research scientist Beverly Paigen, who conducted a study on families who lived OUTSIDE of the fenced area (the underestimate of total healthy damages in the community), to prove even further that the area was absolutely an unsafe area to be around.

The Shocking Results

Paigen's study revealed increases in miscarriages, still births, crib deaths, nervous breakdowns, hyperactivity, epilepsy, and urinary tract disorders, especially around the old streambeds or "historically wet" areas. One of the most shocking findings was that the chance of women miscarrying here was 300% higher compared to women who didn't live in this area. Also, the study also showed that during the 5-year period from 1974 to 1978, 56% of the children in the Love Canal neighborhood were born with a birth defect (9 birth defects among 16 children born) that included three ears, double row of teeth, and mental retardation.

Follow-Up Study of Levels of Various Chemicals in Landfill Area (2006)

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What Happened Next?

The LCHA presented these findings to the state health authorities, who quickly dismissed the study. They called it "useless housewife data," saying residents' illnesses were all in their heads, the birth defects were genetic, and the urinary disease as the result of sexual activity (in young boys...). So, the community went to the streets and explained their problems to the public in order to gain the support needed. Soon, thousands of people began to write letters and send telegrams to the Governor, to legislators and even to President Carter. Finally, the health authorities were forced to investigate the claims.

On February 8, 1979, after the health department looked at the reproductive problems in the outer community, they confirmed the homeowners' findings and issued a second evacuation order for pregnant women and children under the age of two. But it wasn't until October 1980 that a total evacuation of the community was ordered by President Carter. Everyone who lived at the Love Canal had the option of moving away, with the government purchasing their homes at fair market value.

The Epilogue

Gibbs ended up forming the Center for Health, Environment, and Justice in 1981, of which she became the Executive Director. This was formed in order to provide direct assistance to citizens faced with environmental problems. She started CHEJ because she was contacted by hundreds of people seeking help with their hazardous waste problems. She was a role model for providing insight into dangers of exposed landfills, an example of a serious environmental problem.

As the Director, she has traveled around the country working with citizens dealing with similar issues, and she quickly found that, although Love Canal is the most famous, it is not the only serious environmental problem. In fact, the effects of chemical wastes and emissions continue to threaten thousands of communities across the country. But we can all attack these problems, one step at a time.