Love Canal, Three Decades Later


In February 1981, reason ran a major investigative article on the Love Canal scandal, in which industrial chemical dump leaks were blamed for birth defects and cancer in a neighborhood of Niagara Falls, New York. "Love Canal: The Truth Seeps Out," written by the freelance journalist Eric Zuesse, focused chiefly on who was responsible for the chemical wastes that were leaching into the basements of residents' homes. Digging deep into the property's history, Zuesse showed that Hooker ElectroChemical had adequately sealed the wastes and had repeatedly warned that the site should never be developed. He noted that chemicals began leaking out only after local and state agencies willfully breached the dump site's clay seal as part of a development scheme.

Although it wasn't his focus, Zuesse also expressed skepticism about some of the health concerns that circulated after Love Canal residents were exposed to the chemical wastes. Specifically, he questioned a 1979 survey of Love Canal residents by the biochemist Beverly Paigen of the Buffalo-based Roswell Park Memorial Institute. Paigen's survey concluded that "area residents showed high rates of pregnancy disorders, birth defects, and other illnesses." Zuesse reported that a five-member panel of scientists had reviewed Paigen's study and found that it was "literally impossible to interpret" and that it "cannot be taken seriously as a piece of sound epidemiological evidence."

Zuesse's skepticism was warranted. In 2009 New York state published its findings in a tracking study that has been running since 1996 and includes nearly all of the former Love Canal residents—more than 6,000 people. It turns out that Love Canal residents are not especially prone to early mortality, cancer, or birth defects.

"Overall," the study notes, "the number of cancers in residents was slightly less than in other New Yorkers." The rates of pre-term births, low birth weight, and birth defects among Love Canal residents were statistically indistinguishable from those found across the state, although Love Canal birth defects were double the rate reported in neighboring Niagara County. As for early mortality, the study says it "was not able to show that the overall death rate among Love Canal residents was different than expected based on death rates seen among people of the same age and sex in both Niagara County and New York State."