Lois Gibbs Brings Lessons from Love Canal

Lois Gibbs
Lois Gibbs speaks about her twenty years of
activism that began with the polluted Love
Canal. (photo BA)
Lois Gibbs had one ambition in life: to grow up and be a mom. Today she is the head of The Center for Health, Environment and Justice, an organization dedicated to fighting environmental hazards. The journey from her early ambition to her present position took her through a place called Love Canal.

Gibbs brought the Love Canal story and the Stop Dioxin Exposure Campaign to California State University, Chico on April 20 as the keynote speaker for Earth Month. Her visit was sponsored by a coalition of academic departments and student organizations, including the new environmental studies program and the Environmental Affairs Council. Gibbs won the 1990 Goldman Environmental Prize, had a prime-time movie made of her life, and received an honorary degree from State University of New York.

This is a far cry from the 27-year-old Gibbs of 1978. By then, she was well on her way to realizing her early ambition. She had married her high school sweetheart, had a child, and moved to Niagara Falls. After having her second child, her children became severely ill.

Then she read a newspaper article about the 20,000 tons of chemicals buried in Love Canal under her 900 home neighborhood. A study noted possible health dangers. Gibbs reasoned that the buried chemicals might be causing her children's health problems. Talking to her neighbors, she discovered that health problems and birth defects were common among the children of Love Canal.

"I was incredibly naive, so I thought all the government officials needed to do was understand that there was a problem and they would do the right thing," said Gibbs. But the school board and the health department assured her that they were aware of the chemicals and that there was no problem.

The Love Canal residents decided to fight the issue with science. Although they discovered that 56 percent of the children born at Love Canal had birth defects, the New York State Health Department initially dismissed the study. Later, the health department agreed the report accurately described health problems but claimed the problems were not related to the chemicals. "They said we were a random clustering of genetically defective people," Gibbs said.

The residents decided to sue, until an attorney told them that a lawsuit could take a decade to complete. "The thing he told us that was very devastating was that, in America, it is not illegal to poison people with chemicals," Gibbs said. She explained that corporations are allowed to discharge small amounts of chemicals. "It's called reasonable and economical. It is really ... murder."

Having exhausted other avenues, the Love Canal residents went after the individual decision makers. New York's Governor Hugh Carey was running for re-election. Wherever he went, he found polite but determined Love Canal residents requesting that he visit their community. When Carey agreed to do so, and agreed to respond to one question from the audience, the community spent three days deciding on the question.

In response to the mounting political pressure, the state had agreed to temporarily relocate pregnant women and children under the age of two. When Carey finished his speech, Gibbs was the only person with a raised hand. As she complained about the decision to relocate only some residents, the young children of the community came down the center aisle, formed a semi-circle in front of the governor, held hands, and looked up at him silently. Gibbs then asked, "Governor Hugh Carey, are you going to allow these 3-, 4-, and 5-year olds to remain at Love Canal and die?" The governor agreed to relocate everyone.

Gibbs told the Chico State audience, "We were housewives. We weren't political strategists, but this stuff is easy." She is now campaigning to reduce the sources of dioxin, an extremely toxic chemical that collects in the fatty tissues of mammals, has contaminated every person in the United States, and poses health risks. Dioxin gets into the air through the manufacture of chlorinated plastics and in the process of chlorine-bleaching paper. When those plastics are burned, such as in a medical incinerator, dioxin is released into the air. It settles on the ground and is ingested by animals, who are eaten by people. While 90 percent of dioxin exposure is through food sources, exposure is substantially higher for people who live near plants or incinerators.

Gibbs recommended that if the center of the recycle triangle has a "V" or a "3," meaning it is made of chlorinated plastic, you should call the company's 800 number and explain that you couldn't buy the product because it contains chlorinated plastic. She suggested organizing and meeting with hospital personnel to discuss possible alternatives to chlorinated plastic, and encouraging the campus to buy only chlorine-free paper.

Changing the world is something anyone can do. Gibbs said, "It really does mean one small step, and if you do it, you can change the world. We can do it together."

To learn more, visit the Center for Health, Environment and Justice Web site, http://www.essential.org/cchw/


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