Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Love Canal and the Hyping of an Eco-Scare

Love Canal and the Hyping of an Eco-Scare

At today's Earth Day celebrations, environmentalists will likely point to the clean-up of the toxic waste dump at New York's Love Canal as one of their biggest victories. But was there really a terrible environmental menace to combat at Love Canal in the first place?

(PRWEB) April 24, 2004

At today's Earth Day celebrations, environmentalists will likely point to the clean-up of the toxic waste dump at New York's Love Canal as one of their biggest victories. But was there really a terrible environmental menace to combat at Love Canal in the first place?

When federal officials announced the completion of the clean-up last month, the New York Times called it the end of a "toxic horror" that had burned children and pets and caused birth defects and miscarriages. Most scientists who have reviewed the Love Canal over the past two decades, however, have concluded that the evidence for such dire effects is flimsy.

Democrat Hugh Carey, who turned 85 on April 11, was governor when Love Canal first hit the news in 1978, and I talked to him recently about the version of events popularized by the Times and others: "It's just dead wrong." Carey says that a flawed study suggesting higher disease rates near Love Canal, combined with crusading local activists, created unwarranted fear. "We checked here and there and everywhere and couldn't find any key indicators of contamination."

Says Carey, "There wasn't a single case of a fatal illness or even a serious illness" attributable to the dump, according to the best-qualified scientists who examined the evidence. Nonetheless, newspapers near Love Canal repeated anecdotes about residents' diseases. "Almost daily things would come out, then people read the articles," says Carey. "People obviously get exercised about their children, and they became aware that the school was sitting on a former dump."

Congress pointed to Love Canal as evidence of widespread eco-catastrophe in America. "They needed something to hang Superfund on," says Carey of the expensive toxic clean-up law launched under the Carter administration. "Every morning I'd turn on the TV and see the Attorney General on there pushing the Superfund." A chief proponent of Superfund was then a young member of the House of Representatives, recalls Carey: "I know Al Gore and we're friends, but he was way off base, saying every morning, those people are dying up there and the state's not doing anything."

New York officials had little choice but to begin relocating the families near Love Canal and cleaning up the site, given the hysteria that had been created. "There are two kinds of pollution -- environmental and political," laments Carey, who has watched many groundless scares over chemicals play themselves out in the media since then. "Where does it end? What's next? Shoe polish?"

Carey says what bothers him most is the charge that state government failed to act, in particular any suggestion of negligence by state Health Commissioner Dr. David Axelrod, who gathered scientists to review the data from Love Canal, and state Transportation Commissioner Bill Hennessy, who was in charge of the relocation. "It was Hennessy who said, Governor, you're going to have to get the people out of there because they're so frightened now...These people were getting sick, not because of what was in their basements but because of what was in their heads."

Carey says needless environmental wrangles still happen: "Witness the fight between Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and GE, which is still in litigationÂ…the famous PCBs." He also fears political grandstanding over the clean-up at Ground Zero. "The EPA has found essentially that the place is safe, and I'm hearing parties say 'We don't like that report, we want another one,' and you keep compounding those, it'll make development more difficult." Carey worries that government's standards for environmental purity have become unrealistically high. "When will it ever be clean? Clean to whose satisfaction, when the state's own health department doesn't want to move into a building at 50 Church Street because they may be affected by construction contamination?"

Carey notes that we've gotten far more sensitive to any perceived environmental threat. "Once you say 'cancer-causing,' the horse is out of the barn...We hear the word 'chemical' and there's an immediate sensitivity." Carey doesn't blame the public but a system where media hype and lawsuits run ahead of the science, needlessly stoking our anxieties even in times of relative safety. By contrast, he remembers when the air of Brooklyn was rank with the smell of refineries and when New York's populace faced graver health threats: "When my ancestors arrived, my grandmother had seven children, but only three survived; the rest had diphtheria, smallpox, and so forth."

Carey wonders if some less-politicized body might be formed to assess environmental and health risks, perhaps a private organization along the lines of Underwriters Laboratories. "Can this highly technical society set forth a system with scientists who set parameters for what's really dangerous?" Unfortunately, as in the case of Love Canal, our environmental policy often gets made in the heat of the moment, in reaction to crises, with expensive and over-politicized results. That's a sobering thought to keep in mind amid the hubbub of Earth Day festivities.

Mr. Seavey edits HealthFactsAndFears. com for the American Council on Science and Health and is writing a book called Conservatism for Punks. This piece also appeared in the New York Sun.