Happy Birthday, Love Canal

Some disasters aren't all they're cracked up to be


"The profound and devastating effects of the Love Canal tragedy, in terms of human health and suffering and environmental damage, cannot and probably will never be fully measured," began the 1978 special report, Love Canal: Public Health Time Bomb. That idea is still alive: "Love Canal Declared Clean, Ending Toxic Horror," ran the New York Times headline last week. The Times article noted, "Hundreds of families were evacuated from the working-class Love Canal section of Niagara Falls, N.Y., after deadly chemicals started oozing through the ground into basements and a school, burning children and pets and, according to experts, causing birth defects and miscarriages." In an op/ed on March 22, the Times declared that Love Canal "should be made a kind of national historic toxic waste site."

Love Canal did indeed play a key role in our national history. It was an abandoned canal into which the Hooker ElectroChemical Corporation dumped various chemical wastes in the 1940s and early 1950s. It was then covered over by Hooker with an impermeable clay cap. As a superb detailed history of Love Canal, "The Truth Seeps Out", published in the February 1981 issue of Reason, recounts, in 1953, under pressure from the local school board, Hooker sold the covered landfill to the board for one dollar. Hooker strongly warned that the property should be used only as a park or parking lot and that the clay cap should never be breached. Nevertheless, the city sold off parts of the land to housing developers and breached the landfill to put in sewer lines. It is probable that chemicals began to seep out through those breaches. In the late 1970s, noxious-smelling chemical wastes began oozing into the basements of several houses located near the Canal site. Naturally, residents were alarmed.

Worried residents transformed themselves into lay epidemiologists and began to attribute any miscarriages, birth defects, or cancers they experienced to the chemicals. In 1978, Love Canal residents became even more alarmed when a telephone survey conducted by biologist Beverly Paigen reported finding higher rates of miscarriages and birth defects there than should be expected. On August 7, 1978, President Jimmy Carter declared Love Canal a disaster area; eventually nearly 1,000 families were evacuated from their homes. Love Canal became a symbol for the "poisoning of America" by heedless corporations as a muckraking 1979 article in The Atlantic Monthly put it.

In the midst of the furor over Love Canal, in 1980 Congress enacted the highly dysfunctional Superfund law, aimed at cleaning up hazardous wastes sites. The law's grindings are slow, unnecessarily costly, subject to political chicanery, and often targets sites for cleanup that pose no real health danger. Some estimates show that Superfund cleanups could eventually cost as much as $400 billion, while providing almost no public health benefits.

Now it is 26 years and $400 million dollars later, and what have we learned about the health of former Love Canal residents? Were they in fact poisoned? Was this a real crisis?

Since 1997, the New York State Department of Health (NYSDOH) has been trying to "fully measure" the allegedly "profound and devastating effects" of Love Canal by conducting a comprehensive series of follow up studies of former Love Canal residents. The NYSDOH has been able to enroll 96 percent of the former residents who had participated in earlier studies.

The studies are ongoing, but preliminary results indicate that Love Canal's effects have fortunately been somewhat less than "devastating." The April 2002 NYSDOH Love Canal newsletter reports, "Based on information so far, Love Canal residents have the same life expectancy and cancer incidence rates as upstate New York and Niagara County residents. We do have enough statistical power in the overall findings to feel confident in them." To reiterate, the study found: "Canal residents are at no greater risk of death or cancer than upstate New York or Niagara County residents."

What about reproductive effects? After all, the New York Times just reported again that experts found that the chemical wastes seeping out of Love Canal "caus[ed] miscarriages and birth defects." NYSDOH's September 2002 newsletter reports that researchers found overall that the "average birth weight of Canal [neighborhood] babies was the same as upstate New York and Niagara County averages," and that "the rate of premature births for Love Canal women was the same as upstate New York and Niagara County women." However, mothers "living on the Canal [itself] during their pregnancy had more very low birth weight babies than mothers living outside the study area," and they "had more premature births than mothers who had moved away." These findings are essentially mirror images of one another since babies born prematurely tend to have lower birth weights. The study also found that "the rate of birth defects for Love Canal mothers was slightly higher than upstate New York and Niagara County (3% compared to 2%)."

For comparison, I tried numerous times to pry the actual statistics for very low birth weight, prematurity, and birth defects for Love Canal residents out of the New York State Department of Health. However, I ran into a bureaucratic wall at the NYSDOH public affairs office. I don't think they have anything to hide—it's probably just the usual bureaucratic bungling and sloth. But just for the record, the percent of very low birth weight babies born in the United States was 1.11 percent in 2002, and 6.12 percent are born with moderately low birth weight according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). And 10.4 percent of American babies are born prematurely, according to CDC data.

Figures vary on the percentage of babies born each year with birth defects. For example, the March of Dimes says that about 150,000 babies are born with birth defects each year, and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists says that three out of every 100 babies are born with some kind of birth defect. According to the CDC, about 120,000 babies out of the 4 million or so born in the U.S. every year have birth defects, which again translates to a 3 percent rate. If these numbers are correct, then the 3 percent rate for babies born with birth defects to mothers living on Love Canal is not extraordinary, though it may be the case that areas in upstate New York outside of Love Canal are fortunate to experience a lower 2 percent birth defect rate.

The residents at Love Canal certainly did suffer—after all, who wants smelly disgusting ooze seeping into their basements, even if it poses no significant health dangers? Living as they do in a post-Rachel Carson world in which exposures to minute quantities of synthetic chemicals is cause for hysteria, who can really blame Love Canal residents for their reactions?

The good news, though, is that as far as medical science and epidemiology can determine, the health of the residents of Love Canal and that of their children is not significantly worse than the health of their fellow citizens who lived elsewhere. In other words, Love Canal did not have "profound and devastating effects" on the residents.

Twenty-six years later the New York Times continues to perpetuate the false notion that a real toxic horror happened a Love Canal and suggests that Love Canal become a "national historic toxic waste site." It's true that the Love Canal panic does stand as a monument to how toxic fears regularly drive our society to waste vast sums on phantom risks. But I don't think that's exactly what the Times meant.