Love Canal

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Love Canal
Interview by Richard Kazis

Before 1977, Lois Gibbs was a wife, mother and full-time homemaker in Niagara Falls, New York. She had never been active in politics or community affairs. But then she found out that her home and her child's school were located on one of the most dangerous toxic waste dump sites in the nation, Love Canal. She decided that she had to act:

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Photo: courtesy Lois Gibbs

Before Love Canal, I knew nothing about the environment and was not particularly concerned. I wanted to live the so-called American Dream - white picket fence, healthy family, well-adjusted children. We moved into Love Canal in 1972. In 1977, I read in a new article that Hooker Chemical Company had used the Canal as a toxic waste dump in the early 1950s and that a variety of health problems could be related to exposure to the chemicals buried beneath the neighbourhood. My son Michael had many of the illnesses that were listed in the article; epilepsy, liver disease, blood disease, asthma and a urinary tract infection which required two surgeries. He had all that before he turned five. Yet, when we first moved to Love Canal, there had been nothing wrong with him. The article got me thinking that there was a connection between the dump site and Michael's health.

Michael attended the 99th Street School, located directly on top of the Canal. And at the start, my primary concern was the school. I went to the Board of Education and said that I wanted Michael to be transferred into a safer school. To be truthful, my initial impulse was selfish. I was concerned for my child's health.

I went to the Board with two doctors' letters, which they had told me I would need. But when I explained that I wanted Michael transferred, they told me that if the school was unsafe for Michael Gibbs, it was unsafe for the other 470 children enrolled there. And they told me they weren't about to close down the school because of one irate hysterical mother with a sickly child. That was the most devastating thing I had ever heard, I came home and could not even talk. How could they say that to me? The child was sick. I had documentation from my physicians. And they refused to help. I was appalled.

So I decided to call my state representatives and my Congressman and even the Governor. I felt very intimidated. I lacked self-confidence. I didn't know whether I had the right to call these people and ask for their help. I felt inadequate talking to them, stuttering and stammering all the way. But after talking to a number of them, my lack of self-confidence and my insecurities quickly turned to anger, because nobody was doing anything. All I could think of was; if something is not done soon and continue to send this child to school. I'll lose him. That was the bottom line.

I decided to go out door-to-door and see if other parents were willing to shut down the school and whether they were experiencing similar health problems with their children. That was the most traumatic thing in my life. I put a petition together and practised it at home for about a week. I started with the first ring of homes around the Canal. I do not know what I expected, but when I got to the first door I broke out in a cold sweat. I had to go to the bathroom. So I just picked up and ran all the way home. I just could not do it.

That night, Michael got very sick - a 105F fever. I had to take him to the emergency room for treatment. That drove home to me the reality that if I continued to be a 'scaredy-cat' nothing was going to change. The politicians, the School Board, the neighbours - nobody was doing anything. It was up to me. So after that I went back out took a deep breath as each neighbour opened the door and said what I had to say. I was waiting for people to slam their doors and think I was crazy. But people were very supportive - and they started to ask questions. It was then that I discovered that not just the 99th Street School but the whole damn community was affected. People told me about 12-year old girls having hysterectomies, men and women with severe cancers. When people realized that their problems were shared by others, we were able to form the Love Canal Committee which later became the Love Canal Home Owners Association.

It was all self-interest that led me to do this. I wanted to protect my children. We had a very low income - my husband made about £10,000 a year. We could not afford to move or even to put Michael in private school. But I felt that something had to be done to protect him. In the end, this is what motivates most people. 'You can't do this to my home and my yard. I worked too hard for what little I've got.'

There are other Lois Gibbs all across the country, people sitting there knowing that they have a problem and that nobody is doing anything about it. And many of them say to themselves; 'I can't do anything. We can't change anything.' But with some encouragement and some help, they often can. I received letters and calls from thousands of people asking what they could do in their communities, how they could do a health survey, how they could move government. That led me to set up the Citizen's Clearinghouse on Hazardous Wastes - to help the other Lois Gibbs who have not taken the steps we did in Love Canal.

The one thing I have now that I did not have before is a purpose and a goal in life. I know now that there is something I can do, a contribution I can make. And that gives me a lot of satisfaction. When people call now and say 'We won over here' or 'We got what we asked for,' I feel great.

Lois Gibbs has recently written a book about her experiences. Love Canal: My Story is available from the State University of New York Press.

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New Internationalist issue 113 magazine cover This article is from the July 1982 issue of New Internationalist.
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