Love Canal


A tract of land eventually to be called Love Canal was originally intended to become a model urban city for its developer and namesake William T. Love. It was to be located on the eastern edge of the city of Niagara Falls, New York. Love envisioned in the early part of the twentieth century the building of a small community of parks and homes along Lake Ontario. However, his finances only allowed him to build a few homes, along with the partial completion of a canal that was intended originally to connect Lake Ontario to the Niagara River. At the time of the disaster, the Love Canal community contained 36 square blocks located in the far southeastern corner of Niagara Falls. Because of the leakage of a previously covered up hazardous waste site, the Love Canal neighborhood of Niagara Falls, New York, was largely evacuated in 1980, after testing revealed high levels of toxic chemicals in the ground and genetic damage within its residents. In all, over 400 chemicals, including such toxins as benzene, the pesticide Lindane (gamma-hexachlorocyclohexane), polychlorinated dioxins, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and phosphorous, were dumped at the site.

A locked gate secures the perimeter to the Love Canal site in Niagara Falls, N.Y., Oct. 25, 2004.

A locked gate secures the perimeter to the Love Canal site in Niagara Falls, N.Y., Oct. 25, 2004. The Love Canal neighborhood's recent exit from the Superfund list came with assurances that any environmental effects from the seeping chemical waste that forced its evacuation more than two decades ago had been taken care of. Measuring the health effects on the people who lived there has been a different matter.
(AP Photo/David Duprey)


Between 1942 and 1953, the Olin Corporation and the Hooker Chemical Corporation buried over 20,000 tons (18,100 metric tons) of deadly chemical waste in the canal, much of which is known to be capable of causing cancer, birth defects, miscarriages, and other health disorders. At various times in the first half of the century, the city of Niagara and the federal government also dumped such waste products as chlorinated hydrocarbon residues, pesticides, plasticizers, process sludges, fly ash, and municipal wastes into the canal. In all, about 21,800 tons (19,780 metric tons) of chemical wastes were buried at Love Canal. In 1953, Hooker deeded the land to the Niagara Falls Board of Education and warned the board members about the deadly nature of the chemicals buried there. According to Michael Brown's book Laying Waste: The Poisoning of America by Toxic Chemicals, Hooker had made eight test borings into the ground, in the presence of board officials, and found evidence of dangerous chemicals below the surface. According to Brown, Hooker included with the contract a warning about the chemical wastes that lay buried beneath the property. The company also included a disclaimer absolving it of any future liabilities. On the other hand, another version of the story questions just how much was known concerning the toxic chemicals beneath the ground at the time the deed was transferred from Hooker to Niagara Falls. Dr. Michael S. Pritchard, a professor in the department of philosophy at Western Michigan University, and Dr. Theodore Goldfarb, a professor in the department of chemistry at State University of New York at Stony Brook, stated within their book Ethics in the Science Classroom: “Whether Hooker was as reluctant as it says it was and as assertive in cautioning the Board about the hazards is impossible to determine. Existing minutes of the meetings in question do not fully support Hooker's version of the proceedings, and none of the Board members are still alive. What is clear is that the deed that was negotiated contains a clause exempting Hooker from any “‘claim, suit or action’ due to future human exposure to the buried chemicals.”

Risk factors

Because the rains brought the toxic chemicals up to the surface, chemical smells began to be noticeable within houses, viscous fluids seeped into yards and basements of residents, and odors came from storm sewer openings. Plants, trees, and even some pets died. The first case of a human being adversely affected by the buried toxins happened when three children suffered chemical burns on their feet from wastes that had resurfaced. Eventually, tests performed by the New York State Department of Health and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) confirmed the seriousness of the problem. Problems incurred by the human residences of Love Canal included miscarriages by the women living in the homes next to the former canal site (where the chemicals were buried). Other medical conditions, which were occurring at higher rates than normally found in the American population, included birth defects, toxicity of the nervous system, asthma, and urologic problems. In addition, the EPA announced that some residents of Love Canal suffered chromosome damage from being exposed to toxic chemicals.


The toxic waste outbreak at Love Canal lasted from 1958, the year symptoms were first noticed in its human residents, to about 1994, the year the cleanup of the site was completed and residences were able to return to Love Canal. However, for the people directly affected by this disaster—its residents—the problems continued past 1994.

Causes and symptoms

The disaster at Love Canal was caused by a school and hundreds of homes being built on top of a toxic chemical waste site. After the problem was discovered, the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry recorded over 400 types of chemicals in the air, water, and soil of Love Canal. Some of these chemicals, such as benzene, were known at the time to be carcinogenic (cancer causing).

Common diseases and disorders

Because of being exposed to the toxic chemicals below them, neighborhood residents of Love Canal experienced an extraordinarily high number of medical diseases and disorders, including breast cancer, endometriosis, leukemia, prostate cancer, skin cancer, and thyroid disease. In addition, higher than normal rates of stillborn births and miscarriages were found within the residences of Love Canal, and many babies were born with birth defects. Children exposed to the chemicals were found to have an abnormally high numbers of such symptoms as abdominal pain, eye irritation, and skin rashes. They also experienced such medical conditions and problems as deformed ears and teeth, hearing defects, heart defects, hyperactivity, incontinence, learning problems, mental retardation, seizures, skin rashes—and these were experienced as much higher incidences when compared to the average child in the United States.


The Love Canal waste site was treated with the following: landfill containment, leachate collection and treatment system, and groundwater monitoring. In addition, the contaminated creek was removed, along with various sediments.

Public health role and response

Alarmed by the situation, and frustrated by inaction on the part of local, state, and federal governments, 27-year-old housewife Lois Gibbs (1951–) began to organize her neighbors. In 1978, they formed the Love Canal Homeowners Association and began a two-year fight to have the government relocate them into another area.

In August 1978, the New York State health commissioner recommended that pregnant women and young children be evacuated from the area, and subsequent studies documented the extraordinarily high rate of birth defects, miscarriages, genetic damage and other health effects. In 1979, for example, of seventeen pregnant women in the neighborhood, only two gave birth to normal children. Four had miscarriages, two suffered stillbirths, and nine had babies with defects.

Eventually, the state of New York declared the area “a grave and imminent peril” to human health. Several hundred families were moved out of the area, and the others were advised to leave. The school was closed and barbed wire placed around it. In October 1980, president Jimmy Carter (1924–) declared Love Canal a national disaster area.

LOIS GIBBS (1951–)

Lois Gibbs, president of the Love Canal Homeowners Association, makes adjustments to a Christmas tree trimmed with decorations naming some of the chemicals found in the Love Canal, Dec. 21, 1978.

Lois Gibbs, president of the Love Canal Homeowners Association, makes adjustments to a Christmas tree trimmed with decorations naming some of the chemicals found in the Love Canal, Dec. 21, 1978. The sign at the top saying Hooker is no angel refers to the Hooker Chemicals & Plastics Corp., which used the site as a chemical dump for 10 years.
(AP Photo)

In 1978, Lois Gibbs' world was turned upside down by the realization that her son's school was directly above Love Canal—a buried dump containing hazardous materials. Her son, along with several other students, had developed a health condition which she attributed to the toxicity of the geographical area. Gibbs quickly discovered that the governmental officials were more concerned with their public image than the problem itself.

Frustrated with the lack of governmental support, Gibbs publicly took two Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) officers hostage. In exchange for releasing the hostages, the EPA agreed that the Federal Disaster Assistance Administration would pay for the immediate evacuation of Love Canal residents.

Upon leaving Love Canal, Gibbs moved to Washington D.C. In 1981, she founded the Citizens' Clearinghouse for Hazardous Wastes, an organization charged with fighting toxic waste problems and serving as an advocate for communities. (The organization is now known as the Center for Health, Environment and Justice).


According to the March 18, 2004, New York Times article “Love Canal Declared Clean, Ending Toxic Horror,” “The image of toxic wastes bubbling up from the ground shocked people across the country, and in 1980 directly spurred Congress to pass the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA), which came to be known as Superfund.” CERCLA was created to hold organizations liable for their actions with respect to pollution.

In the end, some sixty families decided to remain in their homes, rejecting the government's offer to buy their properties. However, approximately 800 families were evacuated. The cost for the cleanup of the area, over two decades, has been estimated at nearly $400 million. Industrial chemicals at the site have been removed or contained in an area lined with impermeable materials and topped with clay. This 16-acre (6.5 hectare) area, which contained the most concentration of toxic chemicals, was reburied with a thick plastic liner, clay and dirt. It was surrounded with a 7-foot, 10-inch (2.4 meter) barbed wire fence. In 1992, twelve years after the neighborhood was abandoned, the state of New York approved plans to allow families to move back to the area, and homes were allowed to be sold. In March 2004, the neighborhood was taken off the Superfund list.

In 1994, Hooker was found to have been negligent, but not reckless, in its handling of the waste and sale of the land to the Niagara Falls School Board. Hooker's parent company, Occidental Petroleum, was sued by the EPA. In 1995, Occidental paid $129 million in restitution. In the following years, lawsuits brought by Love Canal residents were settled in court.

Love Canal is not the only hazardous waste site in the country that has become a threat to humans—only the best known. Indeed, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has estimated that up to 2,000 hazardous waste disposal sites in the United States may pose “significant risks to human health or the environment,” and has called the toxic waste problem “one of the most serious problems the nation has ever faced.”

Fly ash—
One of the residues generated in combustion; in industrial settings, it refers to ash produced during combustion of coal.
A state in which a person is abnormally active.
The inability to control one's urination or bowel movements.
Process sludges—
Any one of many materials generated from industrial or municipal water treatment systems.


Regulations have been enacted in the United States to protect people from environmental hazards. Because of Love Canal, along with the toxic waste site at Times Beach, Missouri, the U.S. Congress established a multibillion-dollar program known as the Superfund to clean up hazardous waste sites across the United States. The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) was created as a result of the law. The ATSDR has authority to clean up hazardous substances that may endanger the health of the public or the environment. The CERCLA also directed the Environmental Protection Agency with the task to identify entities responsible for waste contamination in the United States and to force such entities to clean up such toxic sites.

Further, other laws and agencies have been created to assure the health and safety of all American citizens. For example, in 1971, the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) was established to set standards for health and safety in the workplace, while that same year the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) was established to enforce rules and regulations based on NIOSH findings. In 1983, OSHA made it a requirement that all industries make a full disclosure to their workers concerning any dangerous chemicals being used in their facilities.

Dr. Robert P. Whalen, the state of New York's health commission, made the following statement after a formal report of the disaster was completed: “The profound and devastating effects of the Love Canal tragedy, in terms of human health and suffering and environmental damage, cannot and probably will never be fully measured… [w]e cannot undo the damage that has been wrought at Love Canal but we can take appropriate preventive measures so that we are better able to anticipate and hopefully prevent future events of this kind.”

See also Asthma ; Benzene ; Benzene and benzene derivatives exposure ; Cancer ; Dioxins ; Hazardous waste ; Leukemia ; Skin cancer ; Times Beach .



Blum, Elizabeth D. Love Canal Revisited: Race, Class, and Gender in Environmental Activism. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2008.

Brown, Michael H. Laying Waste: The Poisoning of America by Toxic Chemicals. New York: Pantheon, 1980.

Gibbs, Lois. Love Canal and the Birth of the Environmental Health Movement. Washington, DC: Island Press, 2011.

Gibbs, Lois. Love Canal: My Story. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1982.

Hernan, Robert Emmet. The Borrowed Earth: Lessons from the Fifteen Worst Environmental Disasters Around the World. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.

Levine, Adeline Gordon. Love Canal: Science, Politics, and People. Lexington, MA: Lexington Books, 1982.


Beck, Eckardt C. The Love Canal Tragedy. Environmental Protection Agency. (January 1979). (accessed September 17, 2012).

DePalma, Anthony. Love Canal Declared Clean, Ending Toxic Horror. The New York Times. (March 18, 2004). (accessed September 17, 2012).

Enzler, S. M. Environmental Disasters. Lenntech. (accessed September 17, 2012).

Gibbs, Lois Marie. History: Love Canal: The Start of a Movement. Boston University School of Public Health. (2002). (accessed September 17, 2012).

Love Canal. Department of Health, New York State. (July 2011). (accessed September 17, 2012).

Verhovek, Sam Howe. After 10 Years, the Trauma of Love Canal Continues. The New York Times. (August 5, 1988). (accessed September 17, 2012).

Love Canal—Public Health Time Bomb. Department of Health, New York State. (July 2011). (accessed September 17, 2012).


Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 4770 Buford Hwy N.E., Atlanta, GA, 30341, (800) 232-4636, .

Environmental Defense Fund, 1875 Connecticut Ave. N.W., Ste. 600., Washington, D.C., 20009, (800) 684-3322, .

Environmental Protection Agency, 1200 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W.; Ariel Rios Bldg., Washington, D.C., 20460, 1(202) 272-0167, .

National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1600 Clifton Rd., Atlanta, GA, 30333, (800) 232-4636,, .

Occupational Safety and Health Organization, U.S. Department of Labor, 200 Constitution Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C., 20210, (800) 321-6742, .

Lewis G. Regenstein
Revised by William A. Atkins, BB, BS, MBA

  This information is not a tool for self-diagnosis or a substitute for professional care.