Love Canal Was Supposed to Cause Cancer. How Many People Died?

Health and medicine explained.
Aug. 28 2013 5:56 AM

How Many People Were Killed by Love Canal?

The surprising statistics of environmental cancers.

Love Canal Cleanup 1978
Love Canal cleanup in 1978

Photo courtesy of EPA

In the 1890s, William T. Love, foreseeing an economic boom along the banks of the Niagara River, began excavating a canal. It would skirt past Niagara Falls, allowing boats to travel between Lake Erie and Lake Ontario. More important, the diverted water would be used to generate hydroelectric power. Drawn by a seemingly inexhaustible supply of energy, new industries would spring up. Workers would commute to modern factories from a showcase urban development he would call Model City.

Love’s plan depended, in large part, on the need for power-hungry customers to come to the electricity, which in those days was generated in a form pioneered by Thomas Edison called direct current. Direct current could not be carried very far before it faded. But around the time Love’s canal broke ground, Nikola Tesla and his employer, George Westinghouse, introduced alternating current generators and transformers. Before long, electricity could be stepped up to high voltages and transported across the country. That and the great economic panic of 1893 put an end to the Love Canal project, leaving an unfinished ditch about 3,000 feet long and 100 feet wide.

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In the years around World War II, the Hooker Electrochemical Company acquired it for use as a dump, eventually disposing of some 22,000 tons of toxic waste, including carcinogens like benzene and dioxin. In 1953, the land, closed and covered with dirt, was given for a token payment of $1 to the local school board with the understanding that it was filled with chemical waste. An elementary school was built there anyway, and the city envisioned turning part of the old dump site into a park.

Land bordering the canal was sold and developed, and in the late 1970s, after a couple of years of unusually high precipitation, residents began to complain of a sickening smell. When an official from the Environmental Protection Agency came to inspect, he saw rusting barrels of waste that had found their way to the surface. Potholes were oozing waste into several backyards, and it had seeped into the basement of one home. “The odors penetrate your clothing and adhere to your footwear,” he reported. Three days later his sweater still stank. The neighborhood was evacuated, a national emergency declared, and the investigations began.

The early results were confusing. At first the EPA estimated that people living along Love Canal stood a 1 in 10 chance of getting cancer during their lives just from breathing the polluted air. But several days later the agency admitted to a mathematical error: The increased risk was actually 1 in 100 and far less for people just a few blocks away. Another EPA report found that some of the 36 residents who volunteered for tests showed signs of chromosomal damage—more than considered normal. But it was dismissed by a panel of medical experts led by Lewis Thomas, chancellor of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, as “inadequate” and so poorly executed that it “damaged the credibility of science.” A later study found no excess of chromosomal aberrations.

Cancer can take decades to develop, and those who continued to follow the case awaited the results of a 30-year retrospective by the New York State Department of Health.

When the study was finally released, the epidemiologists reported that the birth defect rate for children born to parents who had lived near the canal was higher than for Niagara County and the rest of the state. But they found no convincing evidence that life by the canal had given people cancer. The overall rate was actually a little lower than for the general population.

Birth defects and cancer can both arise from mutations, so why would there be signs of one without the other? It seems plausible that the dividing cells of a developing embryo would be more sensitive to disruptive influences than cells in a fully formed person. And while a single mutation might be enough to derail a developmental pathway, several hits would usually be required for a cell to become cancerous. But even after three decades, the seeming head start provided by Love Canal hadn’t been enough to produce an obvious excess of malignancies.

For many of us who grew up during the exuberant beginnings of the environmental movement of the 1970s and 1980s, that outcome was almost beyond belief. We were influenced by scathing polemics like Samuel Epstein’s The Politics of Cancer. We worried about saccharine and Red Dye No. 2, and later about Alar on apples. We were told of a modern epidemic of cancer—“the plague of the 20th century”—that was being imposed on the public by irresponsible corporations and their effluents. Food additives, pesticides and herbicides, household cleaners—all of these were said to be corrupting our DNA. We were pawns in “a grim game of chemical roulette,” Russell Train, the administrator of the EPA, warned in a story that was picked up by newspapers across the country.

Ninety percent of cancer is environmental—we heard that again and again. Some of our fears were rooted in a misunderstanding. Epidemiologists define environment very broadly to include everything that is not the direct result of heredity—smoking, eating, exercise, the bearing of children, sexual habits, any kind of behavior or cultural practice. Viruses, exposure to sunlight, radon, cosmic rays—these are all defined as environmental. There was a chance of a person getting a head start on cancer by inheriting a damaged gene. But most of the mutations that triggered a malignancy were those acquired during life. That was encouraging news for public health and prevention. But it was often misconstrued to mean that almost all cancer was brought on by pollution, pesticides, and industrial waste.

There was more to the story than semantics. In 1973, the government Surveillance, Epidemiology and End Results Program began collecting data from state cancer registries on incidence and mortality—how frequently people got cancer and how often it killed them. For years, the mainstream view had been that except for lung cancer, overall rates were holding steady. But in 1976 when the new SEER data were compared with earlier surveys by the National Cancer Institute, the number of new cases seemed to be escalating abruptly, even when the aging of the population was allowed for. This appeared to be the vindication so many people sought.

Combining two sets of statistics, compiled from different sources according to different rules, is bound to cause trouble. Early on, epidemiologists warned that the comparisons were invalid and no conclusions should be drawn—that there was no evidence of a cancer epidemic. To get a clearer idea of what the public was facing, the U.S. Office of Technology Assessment commissioned a study by Richard Doll and Richard Peto, two Oxford University epidemiologists who had made names for themselves by establishing the link between cigarettes and cancer as well as the carcinogenic effects of asbestos.

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