A Toxic Ghost Town

More than ten years have passed since a leaky dump in Niagara Falls, a city in upstate New York, became infamous as Love Canal. The site became a matter for public concern during the summer and autumn of 1978, when Governor Hugh L. Carey and President Jimmy Carter declared an emergency there and arranged to evacuate helpless families who had watched industrial sludge invade their back yards. Overnight a blue-collar community six miles from the cataracts of Niagara Falls became America's first toxic ghost town.

Love Canal, about which I reported in the December, 1979, Atlantic, was the harbinger of America's toxic-waste crisis. The situation led to the identification of many similar problems nationwide and to the creation of a $1.6 billion federal Superfund (now valued at $10.1 billion) for their remediation. At last count, 1,030 families had evacuated the Love Canal area during two separate emergencies, one in 1978, for the 238 households closest to the dump, and a second just a few months after publication of the Atlantic article, for 792 households on the periphery of the original danger zone. Roughly $150 million has been spent to sample the air, groundwater, and soil; survey health problems in the area; pay residents for their homes; move those residents to new homes; and halt and clean up the pollution. The costs were split between the state, which used emergency allocations as well as major shares of its health and environmental budgets, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which relied on Superfund money and funds administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Yet even after such expensive measures questions remain, not the least of which is precisely what happened at Love Canal? Though a decade has passed since it first made national headlines, the canal is still a hot topic locally (articles appear in the local newspapers nearly every day), and it is—as it always has been—the focus of bitter dispute. Were all those people really made sick by the chlorinated concoctions? Or was the health crisis they complained of a case of botched science and mass hysteria?

Today Love Canal is a forty-acre mound of clay ringed by warning signs, a high chain-link fence, and a drainage trench. The clay was heaped on the dump to stop rainfall from percolating through the wastes and carrying any more of them outward. The clay cap is reinforced by a high-density polyethylene membrane that is believed to be resistant not only to rainwater but also to the chemicals themselves. The drainage trench, ranging in depth from eight to twenty-one feet, intercepts chemical-laden groundwater and funnels it to a treatment plant, where the toxic substances are removed by carbon filters. The two streets closest to the chemicals, 99th and 97th streets, have ceased to exist; the homes that stood there were bulldozed under the clay. The more distant homes that were evacuated during the second emergency, in 1980, are boarded up and dilapidated.

At the root of the problem are 43.6 million pounds of process slurries, waste solvents, and pesticide residues that the Hooker Chemical and Plastics Corporation dumped in an abandoned canal from 1942 to 1953. The company trucked much of the waste material from its nearby plant to Love Canal in metal drums that eventually rusted open. Melting snow and spring rains washed the wastes up and outward. The wastes pooled on the surface of the poorly covered canal, causing a stench to envelop the vicinity. In May of 1978, as a reporter for the local newspaper, the Niagara Gazette, I took an informal survey of people who lived on 99th Street and logged numerous complaints ranging from loss of fur among household pets to dizziness, respiratory problems, and breast cancer. Residents blamed the fumes. Responding to the growing public alarm over possible health repercussions, and having already obtained hard evidence that the carcinogen benzene was infiltrating household air, the state Department of Health (DOH) moved in with its own survey, finding four birth defects among thirty-nine babies born to families on 99th Street, where waste sludges were seeping through basement walls. That translates into a 10.3 percent rate of birth defects, compared with the 7.3 percent rate in a control group farther from the chemicals. The rate of miscarriages was 3.5 times the normal rate in one age group of the women living near the canal's southern end, and as the DOH began collecting what would eventually total 4,386 blood samples from 3,919 people, indications were also found of incipient liver damage.

The most dramatic study was conducted in 1980, by a private medical contractor for the EPA and the Department of Justice, which was building a legal case against Hooker—as was State Attorney General Robert Abrams—and thus was interested in proving that there had been a harmful effect. The Justice Department contractor, the Biogenics Corporation, of Houston, studied blood samples from thirty-six residents and concluded that eight of the people had a rare aberration it called "supernumerary acentric fragments," or extra pieces of genetic material. Dante J. Picciano, of Biogenics, claimed that such fragments should appear in only one out of a hundred people and might well forewarn of cancer and birth defects. An uproar ensued among the tested residents, who lived just beyond the 1978 evacuation zone and who now wanted to be evacuated. In May of 1980 their communities were promised government sponsored relocation.

In the years since, several follow-up studies have supported the initial findings of adverse health effects. In 1984 the DOH reported that 12.1 percent of infants born in a "swale" area (where contaminated water may have drained from the canal) experienced low birth weight, as compared with 6.9 percent in other parts of upstate New York. That was followed by a DOH report that found a statistically significant excess of congenital malformations in the swale neighborhoods, primarily from 1955 to 1964, just after the chemicals were dumped. This time 10.9 percent of 174 infants were found to have birth defects. Beverly Paigen, then a biologist at Roswell Park Memorial Institute, in Buffalo, who compared 239 children exposed to Love Canal during gestation with 707 children in an unexposed control group, found an even greater effect. In 1985 she reported that 17.9 percent of those who had lived in drainage areas were born at below-normal weights and that Love Canal children in general suffered a 12.1 percent rate of birth defects—both figures about twice those for the control group. The same year she reported in another study that Love Canal children experienced 2.45 times as many seizures as a control group, 2.25 times as many skin rashes, and 2.95 times as much hyperactivity. In 1987 Paigen, who has served as an unpaid consultant to the residents, released yet another study, of 493 children who had once lived near the dump. The children not only weighed less but were shorter than the control children, she asserted.

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