Environmental and Occupational Health
Two Environmental Crises That Inspired Action
Looking at past environmental and occupational health disasters helps us to understand the community trauma and dedication that have shaped efforts today to protect public health across the world. Here are brief profiles of two of the most troubling and inspiring lessons.
The story of Love Canal, a neighborhood in Niagara Falls, New York, is one of the most famous instances of environmental contamination in U.S. history, brought to light thanks to the dedication of community activists, principled scientists, and investigative journalists.
Over the early decades of the twentieth century, a dried-up canal in Niagara Falls was turned into a municipal and industrial dump site, with more than 21,000 tons of toxic waste buried at the 16-acre site. Desperate for land to serve an expanding population, the city bought the plot from Hooker Chemical, the polluter, in 1953 for one dollar. A school was soon built on the property, and by 1957, the city had constructed low-income and single-family residences next to the site. By the 1970s, health problems emerged, with residents reporting birth impairments and high rates of cancer.
Local activism was led by Love Canal resident Lois Gibbs, whose son developed epilepsy, asthma, urinary tract infections, and a low white blood cell count. When she asked for her son to be removed from the school, the city refused. Gibbs’s organization, the Love Canal Homeowners Association, conducted a survey of neighborhood children and found evidence of elevated rates of birth impairments.56
Despite the efforts of activists and concerned parents, Hooker Chemical and the local health department continued to claim that the health concerns were unconnected to the buried waste. After years of continued complaints, the EPA and New York State Department of Health began to take action, with the department finding evidence of an abnormal incidence of miscarriage in the area. Pregnant women and children were encouraged to leave; a state of emergency was declared in 1978.
Tests would later show evidence of 248 separate chemicals, 11 of them suspected carcinogens, in the neighborhood. Dioxin was of particular concern. While usually measured in parts per trillion, at Love Canal, water samples had dioxin levels in parts per billion—a much higher concentration.
Eckardt Beck, an EPA administrator in the 1970s, recalls a visit to the area: “Corroding waste-disposal drums could be seen breaking up through the ground of backyards. Puddles of noxious substances were pointed out to me by the residents. Some of these puddles were in their yards, some were in their basements, others yet were on the school grounds. Everywhere the air had a faint, choking smell. Children returned from play with burns on their hands and faces.”57
The EPA calls Love Canal “one of the most appalling environmental tragedies in American history.” President Carter declared the site a federal health emergency, and this triggered the creation of the federal Superfund legislation, which provides some protections that we didn’t have before. It was the women of deep conviction and courage at Love Canal who helped shape the modern struggle for environmental protection and justice in the United States.
In December 1984, the world’s worst industrial catastrophe occurred when a pesticide plant owned by U.S.-based Union Carbide Corporation (UCC) and located in the city of Bhopal, India, accidentally leaked methyl isocyanate (MIC) gas and other toxics, exposing more than 500,000 people, including more than 200,000 children. MIC is used to produce the pesticide carbaryl, used primarily as an insecticide. Those exposed immediately experienced coughing, burning eyes, foaming at the mouth, and vomiting, with some suffocating to death as a result of their bronchial passages constricting in reaction to chemical exposure. Long-term effects included chronic respiratory infections, cancers, and reproductive and birth impairments. It is estimated that more than 16,000 people died from gas exposure, either immediately after the disaster or in the years following, with 120,000 to 150,000 becoming chronically ill.58
About 3,000 pregnant women were exposed to the gas leak. The Pesticide Action Network UK (pan-uk.org) states, “Among women who were pregnant at the time of the disaster, 43 percent aborted [miscarried]. In the years that followed, the spontaneous abortion rate remained four to ten times worse than the national Indian average. Only 50 percent of prepubescent girls who were exposed to the gas had normal menstrual cycles.”
A 2009 study reports that babies in their mother’s wombs at the time of exposure exhibited hyperresponsive immune systems.59 Pregnant women also experienced increased rates of stillbirth and increased infant mortality. Other reproductive health concerns associated with the disaster include early menopause, pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), excessive menstrual bleeding, and suppression of lactation. Children of exposed mothers were born with harelips, cleft palates, cerebral palsy, and misformed limbs, hands, and feet. According to PAN UK, “In spite of persistent demands of women survivor organizations, [the] reproductive health of gas-exposed women continues to be a neglected area in terms of official surveillance, research and therapeutic intervention.”60
Union Carbide, now owned by Dow Chemical, has evaded responsibility for this tragedy for more than twenty-five years. But an international network of concerned scientists and advocates continue to press for accountability. Dedicated community activists in Bhopal in connection with international groups such as Health Care without Harm have created the Sambhavna Clinic, using traditional and Western medical approaches to support the recovery of health in the community. People worldwide look to the Bhopal activists for leadership and inspiration in how to take on polluters and how to sustain multigenerational health.
For more information on the Bhopal Medical Appeal, visit www.bhopal.org. For more information on international coalition and legal strategy, see www.bhopal.net. To see how UC/Dow tells its story of the disaster, see www.bhopal.com.
Excerpted from the 2011 edition of Our Bodies, Ourselves. © 2011, Boston Women's Health Book Collective.
56. Heroism Project, “Lois Gibbs: Environmental Activist,” www.heroism.org/class/1970/gibbs.html.
57. Eckardt C. Beck, “The Love Canal Tragedy,” EPA Journal, January 1979, www.epa.gov/history/topics/lovecanal/01.html.
58. Centre for Science and the Environment, “25 Years After Bhopal Gas Disaster: A Selection of News,” www.indiaenvironmentportal.org.in/files/Bhopal%20Gas%20Disaster%20-%2025%20years%20after.pdf.
60. Pesticide Action Network UK, “The Bhopal Aftermath—Generations of Women Affected,” December 1999, www.pan-uk.org/pestnews/Issue/pn46/pn46p4.htm.
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