Love Canal a Model for Creating Change

Forty years ago, on October 4th, a beautiful child at the age of seven was taken from his family. Why? Because he played in his own backyard. Unknown to anybody, this backyard was contaminated with chemicals. Jon Allen was a special little boy who at the age of seven was always kind and considerate to everyone. Two weeks before he died his mother made cupcakes for him to take to school to celebrate his seventh birthday. He was concerned because he knew one of his classmates had some dietary restrictions and would not be able to eat a cupcake. He was only satisfied when his mother told him that his classmate had a treat for the day. This was Jon, always concerned about others, not himself. I keep thinking that the world lost this compassionate little boy because of corporate greed and government’s failure to protect American families.

Many people hear the words “Love Canal” and they think about toxic chemicals in the environment. Some people know the story while others just identify with the name which has become synonymous with toxic chemicals and harmful health effects on people. Most people, even if they know the detailed story behind the words, Love Canal, don’t understand the real cultural, scientific, public policy and practice that this event shaped.

In honor of little Jon Allen and the 40th anniversary of Love Canal, I want to highlight the extraordinary impact this local fight made on American history, regulations and practice.

First and foremost, the events demonstrated the incredible power of our country’s democracy. An average working class and working poor community, united together, spoke truth to power, demanding that our government which was elected and established to protect the people, do just that. Holding elected representatives accountable resulted in the President of the United States to traveling to Love Canal providing the resources needed to end the suffering of 800 families. Neither the lawyers, scientists, nor existing laws and regulations provided the pathway to victory. They were just tools within the community’s toolbox. It was the people, organized and willing to risk everything that created the power for change.

Secondly, the Love Canal crisis opened new scientific explorations around public health effects and environmental chemical exposures. Prior to the events at Love Canal, most scientific research around chemical releases and impacts were done on the natural environment, wildlife and marine life. Rachel Carson’s work on how pesticides were destroying birds and other species is a critical example. There were also studies on lead exposures in the air and in paint as well as worker exposure, but these worker studies focused on 160 pound male employees exposed 40 hours a week. The scientific studies done by Dr. Beverly Paigen at Love Canal, connecting the 56% birth defect rate in the community to exposure of chemicals in homes and yards was groundbreaking new science. Later Paigen and Dr. Lynn Goldman studied growth and maturation of children, concluding that children’s growth was affected by living in this toxic community.

Since Love Canal there have been studies on endocrine disrupting chemicals, consumer products resulting in product bans, chemicals such as dioxins and PCBs, multiple chemical exposures, and much more. Prior to the studies at Love Canal, the exploration of science related to public health was slow and focused on a narrowly limited population and often on a single chemical.

Third, Love Canal open the eyes of the world to how dangerous our past practices and policies around disposal and releases of chemicals are to public health, especially in low wealth and communities of color. Soon after the events at Love Canal, researchers looked to see where other “like” toxic sites might be across the nation. Their studies demonstrated that the majority of toxic releases and disposal sites are located in low income and communities of color. This lead to the establishment of the Environmental Justice Movement and President Clinton’s Executive order of February 1994. This was the first major federal action on environmental justice in the United States and required that all federal agencies “make achieving environmental justice part of its mission by identifying and addressing, as appropriate, disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects of its programs, policies, and activities on minority populations and low-income populations.”

Last but not least, Love Canal was the impetus for a new federal program, called Superfund. This program provides resources to assess and cleanup toxic sites across the country making the responsible corporation pay the cleanup costs. What’s important about this program is that it allows EPA to recover costs from any and every company whose waste is found in the site. This clause made companies very nervous and created the incentive for some companies to find substitutes for the toxic chemicals they use, to recycle their wastes, and more. Another incentive that helped convinced corporations to change their nasty practices was the Right-to-Know amendment to the Superfund law in 1986 that allows anyone to search on-line and find out what a local corporation is releasing into the air.

Love Canal opened a pandora’s box of scientific inquiries, legal strategies, changes in corporate polluter’s practices, public health and environmental policies. However, none of those changes would have happened, if it was not for average American families standing up, not backing down, speaking truth to the powerful and forcing change. Love Canal families were not different than other communities. Most of families had someone working in the chemical industry that we were fighting, 240 families were poor, living in subsidized housing and no one would have thought they would ever carry a sign, march on city hall or be politically active. But they were.

This is a time in our country’s history, we need everyone to do what the Love Canal families did and stand up and speak out. Everything from health care to our planet’s health is at stake. No single person can change the future of America. We need everyone to stand tall and take risks and like the Love Canal events, we can change the direction, policy and practices of our great country. Democracy only works if you participate.