It was 20 years ago that the public first heard the words Love Canal. I was a young mother living three blocks east of the Love Canal dump site containing 20,000 tons of more than 240 different chemicals. Out of fear for the health of my two children, I set out to investigate the dump, the extent of leaking into the neighborhood and to see if my neighbors' children were sick, like my two children. I was shocked after going door to door in the neighborhood and hearing stories of birth defected children, miscarriages, cancers and how multicolored chemical ooze was leaking into basements. My fears were confirmed, our families were at great risk. Our neighborhood began, in 1978, to fight to be relocated away from the toxic dangers. It took two years before all 900 families received relocation benefits.
Our experience at Love Canal woke up the nation to the seriousness of chemical pollution and led to the passage of federal legislation, called the Superfund, which funds the cleanup of other Love Canals. Unfortunately, 20 years later, we still haven't learned the most critical lesson of Love Canal. That lesson: We are still creating public-health threats for ourselves and our children. We're still creating Love Canals - putting pollutants into the environment that create toxic threats to humans, wildlife and the environment. Worse, because the chemicals are stored in body fat of people, wildlife and fish, we are creating toxic sites in our own bodies and those of our children.
One chemical found leaking into the Love Canal neighborhood was dioxin. At that time, there was little scientific understanding of the chemical's potential human health effects. The Vietnam veterans were pushing for the federal government to undertake studies on dioxin, a contaminant in the defoliant Agent Orange. Dioxin was suspected of causing serious health problems in men and women who served in Vietnam and their families.
In 1980, I moved from Love Canal to protect my children from dioxin and other toxic chemicals, only to find that you don't need to live near a chemical dump to suffer the effects of dioxin. Most of our dioxin exposure comes from our food supply. A recent Consumer Reports (June 1998) study of meat-based baby food concluded that infants eating one jar (2.5 oz.) a day would receive more than 100 times the safe intake of dioxin.
Now, 20 years after Love Canal, we know just how dangerous dioxin is. The National Toxicology Program in October 1997 classified dioxin as a human carcinogen and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) concluded in 1994 that the average American man, woman and child has enough or almost enough dioxin in his or her body to damage his or her health. The 1994 EPA report concluded that dioxin harms the human immune system, decreases testis size, reduces testosterone, which affects male fertility, and causes endometriosis in women.
It's past time to learn the most critical lesson of Love Canal: There is no place to run. As long as we continue to create and release poisons like dioxin into our environment, these chemicals will come back to harm us. Yes, we evacuated Love Canal, but we cannot evacuate the planet.
I was excited to learn that Washington state's Department of Ecology just might have heeded the lesson of Love Canal through their announced plans to "virtually eliminate" the release of long-lasting pollutants like dioxin - what the state calls "bioaccumulative chemicals of concern."
Washington is a leader in acknowledging the need to eliminate these poisons, and time will tell whether the Department of Ecology's actions can achieve the promise of its announcement. The first indication of the seriousness of the department's commitment will be whether the agency will continue business as usual in permits and standards for pulp mills, medical-waste incinerators and other pollution sources.
Those who profit from the ability to use our air, water and soil as a place to dispose of wastes will undoubtedly fight to preserve that ability. Corporations that want to continue business as usual will demand more science, more research, and absolutes about adverse health effects before any public policy is established. However, when protecting the public's health, absolute proof means "dead bodies in the streets." And, like the tobacco studies, there are still some who say there is no unequivocal evidence of public health risks from dioxin.
The most recent data from the National Cancer Institute showed an irrefutable increase in childhood cancers between 1973 and 1995. Brain and central nervous system cancer in children up to 4 years old increased by 53 percent. In teenagers between the ages of 15-19, ovarian cancer increased by 78 percent and testicular cancer by 65 percent. These increases cannot be dismissed by better detection, living longer or their lifestyle. The increases suggest environmental causes both while in the mother's womb and during the first stages of their development. We don't know the direct cause of these terrible increases in children's cancer, but we do know brain cancer in 3-year-olds can't be blamed on living longer or their smoking cigarettes.
There are many problems our country faces on a daily basis. Some of them cannot be easily solved. Dioxin is different. We can solve this problem. Eliminating dioxin is possible and will not create irreparable economic hardship. Garbage and medical-waste incinerators are leading sources, followed by paper pulp mills that use chlorine to bleach pulp, and the manufacture of plastics, which contain chlorine. There are viable alternatives to each of these processes.
To achieve this goal, parents, teachers, children's advocates, physicians, blue-collar workers and environmentalists need to speak out and demand them. The forces against elimination of dioxin can't defeat the power of the people who care about their children's health and the environment.
Today, just as 20 years ago, ordinary people are doing amazing work to bring about the changes we need. I'm looking forward to honoring some of those people - people carrying on the Love Canal battle, today in Seattle. It will take a massive public outcry, led by ordinary people, to stop the pollution and remove Love Canal chemicals from our dinner tables and reduce exposures to our children. The country will be watching as citizens in Washington state begin to lead the way for us all.
Lois Marie Gibbs is executive director of the national Center For Health, Environment and Justice and author of "Love Canal, The Story Continues." She is in Seattle this week to participate in "Celebrating 20 Years of Victories and Activism Since the Evacuation of Love Canal." The event is co-sponsored by her organization and the Washington Toxics Coalition.
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