In mid-May, 1980, President Carter declared a state of emergency at the Love Canal area, near Niagara Falls, New York. The reason for this was for the U.S. to underwrite the relocation costs ($3–5 million) of some 2500 residents who, according to a report by the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) may have suffered damaged chromosomes. These injuries were apparently caused by contact with toxic wastes that had been dumped in the area in the years prior to development for housing.
That the toxic compounds exist in the Love Canal and Niagara Falls subsurface zones, including public water supplies, appears to be established fact. That the residents of the Love Canal area suffered chromosomal damage may be established fact as well. Whether or not these two findings can be linked to ill health of the residents is another matter. Recently, the EPA report has been described as having ‘close to zero scientific significance,’ and has been ‘discredited’(Science, 208, 123a, 1980). The reasons for this disparity go beyond differences of opinion, beyond possible inadequacies of the EPA study, and even beyond problems that probably will arise from future studies, including those now in the planning stages. The problem is that even if victims have easily recognizable injuries from toxic substances (injury that apparently has not occurred to Love Canal residents), medical science usually cannot show a causal relationship. Even chromosomal damage is, at best, difficult to interpret. In ideal studies of significant populations and control groups, the association of toxic chemical to chromosome damage and to cancer and birth defects is indirect and, up to now, has been shown to have little or no significance to an individual member of the exposed population.