Love Canal: Public Health and Toxic Pollution

The Story of Love Canal

Love canal, contrary to its name, is a toxic chemical waste site that turned into a community and environmental health crisis. Love canal was originally planned to be a connecting point of the upper and lower Niagara River located in the state of New York. The plan consisted of a seven mile long canal that would harness the water to create a manmade waterfall for hydroelectric power. As the project was in the process of being completed, funding was curbed and the project retracted leaving sections of the canal partially-dug. In 1920, the land was then sold in public auction to be used as a municipal and chemical disposal site. There are no known regulations on how the company was to properly dispose of the waste at the time. The Hooker Chemical Corporation used love canal as a dumping site until 1953(Gibbs, 2010). Consequently, the canal was filled in with dirt and sold for $1.00 to Niagara Falls Board of Education(Revkin, 2013). The Board of Education allegedly was warned about potential physical harm or death due to the waste present onsite. It is obvious that Hooker Chemical Corp. was eager to let go of the land and had no intention of taking any responsibility for future land use. The city of Niagara Falls and the Board of Education planned to build a residential community on this hazardous waste site.

Community development and residential homes were built alongside love canal. Despite early warning, the construction of a residential community near/on a toxic chemical waste site was allowed without zoning regulations. Homeowners were unaware of the historical context in which their neighborhood resided and eventually an elementary school was opened right on the corner of the canal. As early as 1955, residents complained about mysterious burns on their children, nauseous odors, and black sludge emerging from the ground(Gibbs, 2010). It was not until 1978 that love canal received attention from the public and the Environmental Protection Agency. At that time, the state health department began conducting studies to investigate the complaints of residents. 

Public concern was voiced and initiated by residents who began to correlate love canal with their children showing signs of illness. Particularly, mothers who were concerned for the safety of their children who went to the school built on love canal. Lois Gibbs, a resident mother of two children, led community residents to demand compensation from the chemical company for relocation and evacuation(Revkin, 2013). 

In a personal account of the love canal problem, a town hall meeting in which involved toxicology researchers brought attention to the health risks for young children and pregnant mothers. The researchers gave a few points of advice for residents, some including, “don’t eat vegetables from your garden”, “Limit your children’s playtime outside”. Although, no scientific reports could yet confirm health outcomes, the reactions of worry, anxiety and stress in relation to family, maternal and child health permeated the community. Many aspects of livelihood were threatened including dying vegetable gardens, pools of chemical sludge in basements & backyards as well as alarming health outcomes for mothers and children. Once it was apparent that something was in fact wrong with their neighborhood, residents began to correlate community health issues with the toxicity of love canal. 

Mothers of Love Canal reported high incidences of birth defects, stillbirths, and miscarriages. Investigation by reporters from the Niagara Falls Gazette revealed that 56% of children born in love canal between 1974-1978 suffered from at least one birth defect. At one point, there were 15 births in the community and only two of them were born without defects. In 1979, a study by the EPA reported that 33% of Love Canal residents had chromosomal damage compared to the general population at 1% (Gibbs, 2010 p.23/24). 

Buffalo News Article : In 1979, a sign warns of the presence of toxic chemicals near the 99th Street School in Niagara Falls.  


Hooker admittedly buried about 21,800 tons of chemical waste into the canal; from that 200 compounds were identified, 12 of them confirmed as carcinogenic. For example, Dioxin was found to be present in and around the site of love canal(Dionne, 1982). According to the WHO, Dioxins are highly toxic and can cause reproductive and developmental problems, damage the immune system, interfere with hormones and also cause cancer. With all this information, news reports, media coverage, and EPA involvement, the government was pressured to respond.


Photo found on Buffalo News Article titled “A look back at the love canal disaster” 


On Aug 2, 1978 the New York State Department of Health completed their initial studies and issued an order for relocation of all pregnant women and children under the age of two. The health order was in response to high incidences of miscarriages and birth defects in children. The state and federal government declared an environmental emergency. 

Government involvement only came about through community organizing, advocacy and from environmental justice activism. This case birthed a movement against environmental toxicology in residential communities and was one of the first to gain national attention. Consequently, Congress enacted the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, also known as Superfund(Revkin, 2013). This law allows the EPA to clean up contaminated sites with funding from the government when no party is held responsible for contamination. In Dec of 1978, 273 families were evacuated, their homes bought by the government and those selected families were evacuated, leaving many more families behind. Though two years later, 500 more families were evacuated. It took many years for residents to relocate and there are continued studies being done on serum samples dating back over 40 years. Love canal is an infamous case that lead to the formation of Superfund now responsible for over 400 toxic site cleanups. Love canal is a continuing example of environmental health and the need for government intervention, the EPA and community activism. 



Dionne, E. J., Jr. (1982, July 13). Ultra high level of poison cited at love

     canal. In The new york times

Gibbs, L. M. (2010). Love canal: And the birth of the environmental health

     movement. Gabriola Island, B.C. Island Press. 


Nazaryan, A. (2017, October 13). Love Hurts. In Newsweek. Retrieved from 


Revkin, A. C. (2013, November 25). Love canal and its mixed legacy. In The new

     york times


Schons, M. (2011). Superfund. In National geographic. Retrieved from 


What is a superfund? (n.d.). Retrieved September 18, 2019, from United States

     Environmental Protection Agency website:



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