The term “Love Canal” has become synonymous with “corporate-polluted, health-threatening neighborhood.”
Indeed, Love Canal has become one of the key buzzwords in the alarmist environmental vocabulary. Just last month, while trying to exhibit his environmental credentials, Vice President Al Gore claimed to have “found a little place in upstate New York called Love Canal.” While this claim ranks up there with his claim to have invented the Internet, the misrepresentation of health risks due to exposure to low levels of “toxic waste” is the more serious issue.
Twenty-one years ago in upstate New York, thousands of Love Canal residents were evacuated because of charges that buried chemical wastes threatened their health.
The agency given the task of cleaning up and revitalizing the Love Canal area has now declared the area livable again. “Our agency was created with the mission to stabilize and revitalize Love Canal,” said Frank Cornell, director of the Love Canal Revitalization Agency. “We’ve done that. That’s why we can close up.”
Is Cornell’s assessment correct? That depends on what your definition of revitalization is. If that definition includes building new, modern buildings and generally fixing up the neighborhood, perhaps he is right. But if Cornell’s reference to revitalization suggests that the agency has made the Love Canal area a healthier place to live — free of the toxins and carcinogens that threatened health in the l970s — then it is a success story without any scientific basis.
The modern-day Love Canal saga might be traced back to 1976 when residents adjacent to the canal began to complain of chemical odors from the landfill created by a previous corporate resident, Hooker Chemical. A local reporter began writing about suspected cases of toxic waste-induced illness in the area, and by 1978, Love Canal became a national media event with articles referring to the neighborhood as a “a public health time bomb.” By 1979, a scientist with Roswell Park Memorial Institute in Buffalo, N.Y., claimed to find a high rate of birth defects and miscarriages among Love Canal residents and urged an evacuation. Shortly thereafter, President Carter declared a state of emergency at Love Canal, triggering a temporary relocation of over 2,000 residents.
Was there ever any real health problem at Love Canal? Yes, there was, in the sense that there was an enormous amount of media-induced stress placed on residents who were terrified that they and their children would become ill. But no—there was never any documented evidence that exposure to chemicals at the site caused death or disease.
Indeed, in 1980, a panel of scientists appointed by Governor Hugh Carey concluded that “inadequate” scientific studies might have exaggerated the seriousness of the health problems caused by toxic waste. Dr. Lewis Thomas of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, chairman of the panel, declared “as a result of this review, the panel has concluded that there has been no demonstration of acute health effects linked to exposure to hazardous wastes at the Love Canal site. The panel also concluded that the chronic effects of hazardous wastes exposure at Love Canal have neither been established or ruled out yet.”
Nearly 20 years have passed since those blue-ribbon panel findings —and there is still no evidence of an increased incidence of disease or birth defects associated with exposure to the Love Canal chemicals.
Clearly, we must strive to manage the benefits of technology safely and appropriately. We must also acknowledge that heavily industrialized areas of this country are no longer pristine. But such acknowledgements do not justify exaggeration—or sheer fabrication—of health risks that were never documented.