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Who remembers Love Canal?

Question asked by Elizabeth Zubritsky on Dec 17, 2008
Latest reply on May 24, 2009 by Leslie Bordas

This thread posted on behalf of Erika Engelhaupt:



In the summer of 1978, a little suburb called Love Canal became famous—or notorious—for the 20,000 tons of chemicals buried there. To mark the 30th anniversary of this environmental tragedy, which led to the relocation of 900 families and spawned Superfund, I wrote a feature story looking back on Love Canal and the lessons it holds. You can read the story in the ACS journal Environmental Science and Technology and in C&EN, which reprinted it. You can see photos of Love Canal and hear from people who lived there in my multimedia slideshow.


Most 20-somethings today aren’t sure quite what happened at Love Canal, but it’s still very real—and personal—for the people who lived there. Fred and Barbara Jarzab told me over coffee at their kitchen table what it was like to have someone with a clipboard knock on their door and ask to measure chemicals that they’d never heard of in their basement. And while Sylvia Jean Gondek described to me dark bubbles of chemicals erupting from the ground 50 years ago, her grandchildren played in the next room. These people made Love Canal real to me, and they put questions about the health effects of environmental chemicals into sharp focus.


Gondek said she’ll never know whether her son’s birth defect was tied to Love Canal. Speaking strictly scientifically, no individual’s health problems can ever be conclusively linked to environmental chemical exposure, because it’s impossible to know whether they would have become sick without the exposure. But epidemiologically, we know that exposure to certain pollutants increases illness rates, and we understand some of the mechanisms based on animal studies.


I recently wrote about a study by the Silent Spring Institute in which scientists reported contaminant levels in people’s homes to the residents and then asked them how they understood and felt about the results. That’s rare, and the fact that it’s rare may reveal a basic mistrust between scientists and the “real people” they study; some scientists fear people won’t understand scientific information, and it will scare them unnecessarily.


What do you think—how far have we really come in the last 30 years in understanding the health consequences of chemicals in the environment? And how can scientists talk to the public about all of the things we just don’t know?