Children and babies were the most at risk for health effects from chemical exposure. (Fierce Green Fire)
Love Canal was a toxic dump for chemical waste used by the Hooker Chemical Company in the 1950s in Niagara Falls, New York. In the next 20 years two schools and 900 homes were built on or near Love Canal. A young housewife, Lois Gibbs, lived there, and tells host Steve Curwood that more than half the children had birth defects. She organized the community and led a precedent-setting fight against the federal government to get all the families relocated.
CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth, I'm Steve Curwood. 35 years ago, a charmingly named community in Niagara Falls, New York became synonymous with environmental disaster.
Love Canal was a 36-block neighborhood built directly on top of 21,000 ton of toxic waste dumped there by Hooker Chemical company. Two schools were built on the site, and families experienced the effects of this toxic stew first, and they started to hold angry meetings.
MOTHER1: I carried the child for 9 months. The baby weighed three pounds and it was a stillborn birth.
MOTHER2: Our little Julie was stillborn. The loss of our child may be a direct result to the chemicals. Please don’t let this happen to anyone else before you get them out. Don’t let it happen to yourselves.
ANGRY MOTHER: You are murderers. Each and every one of you in this room are murderers.
[CROWD CHANTING “WE WANT OUT”]
CURWOOD: They all wanted to get out, and they wanted answers. One of the principal organizers was a young housewife named Lois Gibbs. As head of the Love Canal Homeowners' Association, she researched the history of the toxic dump, rallied the protests and demanded state and federal action. At one point in 1978 when EPA officials visited the community, Lois Gibbs led the activists that refused to let the officials leave until the federal government promised to relocate the families.
GIBBS: Just pass the word around...nobody...we're not going to do anything violent, we're just going to keep them in the house nothing more than that. Body barricade the doors. OK? OK, pass the word. And don't let 'em out. C'mon guys, sit! If I was to let the two EPA representatives come out this door, does anybody know what would happen to them?
MAN FROM EPA: I guess I'm here for the duration.
REPORTER: Meaning what - for the duration?
EPA: Well, I guess until the White House gives the homeowners some sort of answer.
CURWOOD: President Jimmy Carter did finally declare a public health emergency, and ordered the residents relocated and called for federal funds to clean the site up.
CARTER: The whole question of the disposal of hazardous waste, especially toxic chemicals, is going to be one of the great environmental challenges of the 1980s. There must never be, in our country, another Love Canal. Thank you very much.
CURWOOD: That audio comes to us from the documentary film A Fierce Green Fire.
35 years on, much of Love Canal is abandoned, but the battle helped launch CERCLA, the Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act, better known as the SuperFund Act. And it launched the environmental career of Lois Gibbs, who came by the studio recently to recall how she felt when she started to understand what was going on in her neighborhood.
GIBBS: Well, at first I didn't do anything but cry because that’s usually what you do when you don’t know what to do, and then I got angry because I went to the school board and said, “move my child from the school, it’s on a dump, he’s sick”. And the school board said, “if we move Michael Gibbs from the school, we have to move all 407 children, we’re not about to do that because of one irate hysterical housewife”. And I’m thinking, like, it’s alright to be irate and hysterical when someone’s holding a gun to your child’s head. We had chemicals in our house, in our air, in our backyard, in our school. Everywhere. And they said that they were going to do nothing! So I began by putting together a petition to circulate around the neighborhood to close the school. You wouldn’t think that you’d need to do that hen you have a school on a dump and children are sick, that someone might come close the school and move the children, but it didn’t happen.
CURWOOD: By the way, what were the chemicals that were in there that you found out about?
GIBBS: Some of them were chemical warfare products that they were making back in the 40s and 50s, parts of the Manhattan Project was there, so you had radioactive waste, and then you had over 200 chemicals that came from the chemical factories in downtown Niagara Falls which were pesticides, solvents, things like you find in the gasoline stations, I mean it was just nasty stuff. And some of those chemicals actually came up to the surface because Mother Earth is a very special thing and she keeps pushing out these bad things, and so we had lindane, which is a pesticide that’s been banned in this country since the 70s, on the surface, 100 percent pure. And this is on the surface of the playground where my child and 800 other families’ children played every single day.
CURWOOD: So you started circulating a petition to close the school down, and what happened then?
GIBBS: Well then the state came in, the state of New York came in, and did some testing and they found the houses had chemicals that were above a workplace standard, so that’s for an adult male, 140 pounds, 40 hours a week, and based on that and based on some house studies they did, they determined that it was safer to move pregnant women and children under two. So this was August of 1978. And we just stunned. Our children, our babies, are canaries in the mine, and to remove the canaries does not remove the poisoning, and does not protect the children. So we became very angry, because we realized, if that’s what they felt, then it had to be a whole lot worse. And so we began organizing, and we got people involved, and we did our own house study, and it was amazing. We found 56 percent of our children were born with birth defects. 56 percent with three ears, double rows of teeth, extra fingers, extra toes, mentally retarded, It was just awful. House after house after house would just tell us these horrible diseases, and when we presented it to the state health department and said, “look what we found”, they said it was useless housewife data collected by people with a vested interest in the outcome. And I’m always amazed because - now I’ve been doing this for 35 years - an industry releases a report, BP, Exxon, whatever industry, their reports are always scientifically valid, and almost gospel if you will, and ours is just “useless housewife data”. How come they don’t have a vested interest when BP’s looking at the oil spill? Nobody said anything like that to them. And so I got angry again because now it became a matter of life and death and principle. And so we forced them to do their own study, and guess what, they found exactly the same thing. In fact, the gentleman came up to me and said, “You’ll be so surprised, Lois. We found the same thing you found.” And it was like, what did you think, we were making it up? I mean, my goodness! And when they found that, then they agreed to move entire families in the first two rows of homes - that’s 239 families - and pregnant women and children under two in the outer community.
CURWOOD: This is the fall of 1978, and it’s time for kids to go back to school.
GIBBS: Well, except for they couldn’t go to that school, we did close that school and not only did we close that school, we closed the second school which was at the northern end of our community, 93rd Street School, and our children were bussed to another school. So imagine for a moment, that you’re told not to go in your basement, you’re told not to go in your yard, you’re told not to plant a garden, and you’re told that none of your children can go to school in the neighborhood because it’s unsafe, but somehow it’s perfectly safe for you to live there, and bring those children home every evening after school? It’s just insane. So we continued to organize, we continued to fight back, by May of 1980 we won relocation of all families who wished to leave temporarily, and then October of 1980 President Carter signed an appropriation bill that allowed all 900 families to leave.
CURWOOD: At one point, some of the folks that were organizing with you held some EPA officials - some say kidnapped them, hostage against their will?
GIBBS: [LAUGHS] Yes, I say we detained them for their own protection! This is in May of 1980. That’s actually what got us the relocation. EPA had come down and told us all the things we couldn’t do, which I just mentioned, and then said we had chromosome breakage, and chromosome breakage means that we have a higher risk of cancer, birth defects, and miscarriages. But the thing that really broke the...sort of the straw that broke the camel’s back was when they said it’s not just about the adults in the community, these chromosome breakages could be in your children, and people just panicked. And they all came to this front lawn of the abandoned house where we had our offices, and they’re all looking at me, it’s like, “Lois, what are we going to do?” and I’m thinking like, “My goodness, I’m going to be a target here because people are so angry.” So I called the EPA representatives to the house to explain to the larger group, what does this mean? And when they got there, people said, “you know what? If it’s so darn safe for us, it can be safe for you. And we’re going to hold you in this house until President Carter does the right thing”.
So they were in the house and 500 people literally encircled the house and sat down, so they couldn’t get out. But after a while, it got really rowdy out there, people were feeding off of one another and they were getting angry. The FBI said they were going to come in and they were going to take the hostages from us if we don’t let them go. So we gave the White House...we let them go, kept them for five hours, and we let them go and gave the White House an ultimatum. They had until Wednesday at noon to evacuate us, or the hostage holding as it was coined, would look like a Sesame Street picnic to what we would do Wednesday at noon. We had no plan for Wednesday at noon! We had no clue what was going to happen Wednesday at noon, but I didn’t go to jail, and in fact, one of my hostages sent me a telegram - which young people today may not know that is - but sent me a telegram that said, “I hope you win everything you guys are fighting for. Thank you for the oatmeal cookies. Your happy hostage, Frank.” And what he knew and I didn’t know was that the telegram was going to be - if I went to jail - would be used to say he wasn’t harmed at all or stressed in some sort of way. So I was very thankful to Frank.
CURWOOD: So President Carter issues the order, all families are evacuated. Where do you go?
GIBBS: Well, I moved to Virginia to buy a house there, and set up a new organization to meet the needs of people just like me, the Center for Health Environment and Justice, and I did that because hundreds of people called me and said, “I think I have one of those.” Woburn, Massachusetts, people in North Carolina, people in Texas who were telling me they had these children that were born without their brains, or their brains were born outside of their skull, I mean, it was scary stuff, and I said, there’s a lot of really extraordinary environmental groups out there, but none of them were prepared to deal with communities. They could deal with squirrels and bugs and birds and flowers and trees, but had no clue what to do with people. And so we set up the Center for Health Environment and Justice in order to help other people.
CURWOOD: So you had a victory in getting folks evacuated from Love Canal, but this must have come at a fairly high cost to yourself.
GIBBS: It did. I had to move to DC which is away from my family. I’m a very family oriented person. My husband and I ended up getting divorced. He was a chemical operator and a chemical worker, he was incredibly supportive, but after Love Canal he wanted me to come back home and be a full-time homemaker again, and I just couldn’t do that.
CURWOOD: So you were very successful with assertive community organizing, demonstrations and all that. That’s so 70s!
GIBBS: We need to go back to the 70s! In today’s world, everybody’s so afraid to take risks. It’s like, c’mon guys, what possibly could go wrong, especially when you’re 23, you can make a couple of mistakes and it would be OK. The way that politicians react is when there is public voices saying, we want you to behave differently. We’ve seen this...you look at Governor Cuomo. Governor Cuomo wants to frack all of New York. He would love to frack tomorrow, but there are huge voices across the state of New York saying, no, you can’t do this to our water, you can’t do this to our land, you can’t do this to our food. That is how we win.
CURWOOD: What are your largest concerns about human health and chemical exposure these days?
GIBBS: You know, I’m really frightened. All the science that is coming out is really talking about us being pre-polluted, that is the term they often use, but the chemicals that my mother had transferred to me, the chemicals that I had transferred to my daughter, and she has two grandchildren....I have two grandchildren, she has two children. And so her chemicals transferred to her children, and our bodies are just so contaminated now, and when you look at some of the increase in disease, and you’re saying, “oh my goodness how do we turn some of this back?” So for example, vinyl flooring. There was just a study that came out about vinyl flooring and asthma. Vinyl flooring off-gasses, it evaporates chemicals into the air. And they’re talking about potentially it being associated with autism. Sort of makes sense when you think about a small child that’s laying on a blanket on the floor, a vinyl floor, and then that child is crawling around on that vinyl floor, putting his or her fingers in her mouth, and just collecting all these chemicals into their bodies, and that’s very frightening. It’s like, we have to stop doing that. And we have to at least let the consumers know, what’s in the product. Right now there are 80,000 chemicals on the market, and we have little clue about what chemicals cause what disease. I’m sure there are a lot of very safe chemicals there, but I couldn’t tell you that, nor can the Environmental Protection Agency, or the Food and Drug Administration.
CURWOOD: You say the government couldn’t tell as about it? Why?
GIBBS: Because they’ve never tested them. You know a lot people know about asbestos - it’s been taken out of our schools, out of our buildings, when you buy a home, someone’s always checking for asbestos. You know, asbestos, they tried to get it banned in this country and the chemical industry stopped it. Now how could do you do that? We know about asbestos. We know it causes lung cancer. My goodness, they can’t stop it, they don’t have the tools in the toolbox to stop it. And now there is some conversation about a reform, a chemical policy reform bill on the Hill, and what would that look like? And the reason that bill is on the Hill I might add, is because of the wonderful fabulous work of community groups across this country. So in Washington State, there are a bunch of chemicals that cannot be in products in that state. California just passed a fire retardant law for mattresses and different sort of furniture. Maine has passed a number of laws. Michigan’s passed laws. Massachusetts passed laws. And so here you have all these states that are saying the federal government isn’t going to protect our citizens, we’ll protect them. And so the industry’s going a bit crazy saying, “if I have a mattress, I can sell this one here and that one there, and it’s just too hard”. And when this gentleman told me this, I’m like “well, I have an idea, why don’t you make them all safe and then it won’t be a problem?” It’s kind of a no brainer here. But it’s true; so as a result of all this groundwork being done, there’s now industry coming to the table at the national level saying, “OK we need chemical policy reform, we need labeling, we need banning, but we don’t want to ban as many as you do”. And I keep saying, “let’s keep passing those bills at the local level, at the state level, and keep the heat on the industry”.
CURWOOD: So in 1978 you spoke up at first really to protect your own child and of course it grew from there. And so your child’s all grown up now. How did it turn out?
GIBBS: My daughter almost died of a rare blood disease, but she did recover from that. Michael is healthy. Melissa, as I said, gave me two beautiful grandchildren who are perfectly healthy, and I’ve had two children since Love Canal, and so it turned out well I think. We were lucky or blessed to be able to survive that.
CURWOOD: We’re stepping into the season of gratitude and gift giving and all that sort of thing. What are you grateful for, Lois Gibbs, after telling America about Love Canal?
GIBBS: I think what I’m grateful for is I have my health and my children’s health, and that over the last 35 years, we’ve made a difference. We really have made a difference. We’ve passed laws, we’ve helped people. I mean, I go to bed at night and say, if I was to pass this evening, I wouldn’t regret anything, that’s a really good place to be.
CURWOOD: Well, I want to thank you for coming by. Lois Gibbs, who 35 years ago, started the protest at Love Canal. Thank you so much.
GIBBS: Thank you so much for having me. This was great!
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