The controversy was predominantly political in nature and it raised a series of questions that had more to do with values than science.
The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 50,000 hazardous waste sites exist in the United States, and 90% of these are potential health threats. This shows that the hazardous waste problem is large, not only because of the number of sites, it is usually close to where people live and work.
In 1942 Hooker Chemical Corporations began filling a half-mile long canal with 21,000 tons of 200 or more chemicals. The Niagara Falls Board of Education approached Hooker Chemical about purchasing the site for a school. Hooker Chemicals claimed that it warned the Board of Education that the site was not appropriate. Later, an elementary school was built in the center of the site and on the north and south portions were sold to developers who built homes alond the banks of the former canal.
In 1978 primary actions were taken by the state in purchasing 239 homes near the canal due to health complications of the families. The houses ouside this barrier were said to be fine, but the community was not reassured since there was seepage through basement walls, chemical odors in homes, and odors at storm sewer openings. The residents also questioned why there seemed to be multiple miscarriages 3 to 4 blocks from the canal.
When Beverly Paigen plotted results on a map, she revealed a strong geographic clustering of disease that was related to stream beds and low marshy areas. In these areas she found an increase in miscarriages in pregnant women who lived in wet homes compared to those who lived in dry homes. Birth defects were also higher in wet homes, among these were minor and more serious birth defects such as heart defects, kidney problems, mental retardation and deafness. Asthma was also of concern along with various symptoms of central nervous system toxicity. Among the most severe nervous system problems only the most severe were chosen for Berverly's study, only the group who admissioned into a mental health hospital and suicide attempts were chosen.
Beverly suggested to the Health Department that the hypothesis that needed to be tested was adverse pregnancy outcomes were more frequent in wet homes than in dry homes.
Hooker Chemical company claimed they used state-of-the-art technology in burying the waste and that they warned the Board of Education not to build a school on the site. The goal of the Department of Health was to protect health, the salaries of the department's workers come from tax payer's, therefore when the health effects were ignored or minimized this was not acting in a manner with its goals and responsibilities for the community.
The failure to resolve any controversy may be advantageous to one side. In this case the state had much to gain from the delay of the warnings. This issue is ethical, it is not about preserving state resources.
Opponents may not agree on the question that needs to be answered. Reactions were angry when the commisioner announced that fetus were at higher risk and only pregnant women would be evacuated.
In any controversy, not one group should be in control of the information gathering process. There must a way developed in providing communities with access to resources and expertise.
At Love Canal, scientists working for the State who disagreed with the officials were demoted, transferred or harassed. Beverly was among those harassed, her ability to raise funds for her research was tampered. Her professional mail arrived already opened, and her office was entered outside of working hours.
Scientists need a code constructed for the openess of data, peer review and criticism, publication of data, and replication of experiments. Beverly requested for data under the Freedom of Information Act but her request was denied.
In an attempt to resolve a controversy, all parties should agree on what issues need to be resolved. Such a logical understanding rarely occurs. It would be wise to include representatives of the local community in these meetings along with policy makers, scientists, outside scientists.
In the controversy at Love Canal, there were several charges that happened. The manipulation of health data, to minimize risk. Unexplained delays before the State was willing to admit a health problem. Demotion, transfers, and harassment of state employees. An an effort from the State to discourage independent professional health studies.
Scientists should adhere to a code for openess of data. Secondly, community involvement should be looked for and funds should be provided for the community.
Many issues at Love Canal were scientific in nature, but they had ethical roots.