1.Taverne quacks Furedi's tune (GM WATCH)
2.'Safety Quacks' (Prospect)
3.WAS ANYONE HARMED AT LOVE CANAL? (Peter Montague)
1.'Safety Quacks' - Taverne quacks Furedi's tune
The following article - 'Safety Quacks' - by Lord Dick Taverne, Chairman of the pro-GM lobby group Sense About Science, is not the first he has penned for the political magazine Prospect. His last was, 'Over-precautionary tales: The precautionary principle represents the cowardice of a pampered society' (Prospect, September 2002). This was co-authored with Sense about Science's director, Tracey Brown. http://www.gmwatch.org/profile1.asp?PrId=143
Brown used to work for PR consultancy Regester Larkin, whose client list includes Aventis CropScience, Bayer and Pfizer. Taverne also has a background in corporate consultancy. In the late 1980s Taverne and Roger Liddle founded the consultancy firm Prima Europe. In 1990 Prima published ' The case for Biotechnology', a paper authored by Taverne. Liddle and Taverne were joined on Prima's board in 1996 by Derek Draper. Prima's clients included Unilever, RTZ, British Nuclear Fuels (BNFL), and Glaxo Wellcome. In April 1998 Lord Taverne resigned from Prima, as a result of lobby-firm rules prohibiting employment of sitting MPs and peers, after Prima's merger with GPC Market Access. GPC's clients included Pfizer, Novartis and SmithKline Beecham. Three months after Taverne's departure, his former Prima co-directors Derek Draper and Roger Liddle were at the centre of the so-called 'lobbygate' scandal, involving allegations of 'cash for access' to Blair Ministers. Taverne himself is a long-time associate of Blair's Science Minister, the former food-industry maganate and biotech investor, Lord David Sainsbury. http://www.gmwatch.org/profile1.asp?PrId=127
Tracey Brown, Taverne's co-author, also has some interesting political associations. She is a leading member of the far-right (formerly far left!) Living Marxism - or LM - network. So too is Ellen Raphael - the only other staff member of Sense About Science. Like Brown, Ellen Raphael came to Sense About Science via Regester Larkin. The LM network is fervently pro-technology, especially genetic technologies - opposing all restrictions on their development.
Interestingly, in the piece for Prospect below, which was apparently authored on this occasion without Tracey Brown's assistance, Taverne draws repeatedly on "an important book by Adam Burgess, 'Cellular Phones, Public Fears and a Culture of Precaution'". So, who is Adam Burgess?
Burgess, like Tracey Brown, is a social scientist and like Brown and her deputy at Sense About Science, Ellen Rapahael, Burgess was previously part of the Sociology Department of the University of Kent Canterbury. The Department is headed by Frank Furedi, the chief theoretician of the 'LM' network and both Brown, Rapahael and Bugess were contributors to LM magazine, which had Furedi as its star columnist. Brown, who has co-authored material with Furedi and was formerly his research assistant, is in fact Burgess's wife. Like other members of the LM network, Brown and Burgess stick strictly to Furedi's ideological line.
According to Furedi and the LM network, the forward march of science and technology must be protected from a risk-averse public whose irrational fears and phobias are played upon by environmentalists who seek to impose restrictions on science, technology and business. Such restrictions threaten to inhibit progress and for this reason the scaremongers must not be appeased; expertise must be defended, not only against environmental critics but against the relativism of post-modernism which can also serve to undermine science, the Enlightenment and the onward march of human progress.
This extreme and simplistic position is exactly that adopted by Taverne in the article below. Yet Furedi's ideas contrast notably with those of many other experts on science and technology and their wider social and economic implications. Dr Andy Stirling, a Senior Lecturer at SPRU, which is part of the University of Sussex and is one of the world leaders in policy research in this area, points out that it is meaningless to see science and technology as self evidently good in the way that Furedi and Taverne suggest. The merits of particular technological developments need to be assessed. Technologies, Stirling notes, do not spring from nowhere and nor are they hard-wired in nature. Technological directions are deliberate choices, and those choices are subject to power. Thus, while our possible technological futures are diverse and are open to choice, in a globalising world, there are growing pressures on those choices.
The risk debate, within which Taverne and Furedi frame such choices, is largely about who chooses technology and to what end. Stirling points out that just as scepticism is the key to good science, dissent is the key to robust and innovative technologies. Democracies need more, not less, attention to the politics of technology.The emphasis that Furedi and Taverne, by contrast, place on not subjecting 'expertise' and currently-promoted technologies to scepticism and dissent is, like their emphasis on avoiding aversion to risk, a way of narrowing our choices as to the technological path we proceed along. They seek to exclude dissent, diversity and innovation, and it is reasonable to ask whose interest that serves.
In his latest Prospect article Taverne claims he is willing to allow some public discussion of technological issues, where they raise "ethical" issues, but this, he says, "public discussion needs to be structured carefully to prevent domination by special interests". Here Taverne gives two contrasting examples - the "public discussion that took place in a largely non-adversarial atmosphere before the parliamentary votes on the use of human embryos for stem cell research was an example of effective consultation. On the other hand, the botched public debate on GM crops was not. Anti-GM lobby groups were allowed to dominate the exercise, while the public in general showed little interest."
What is interesting about this highly partisan account of the two debates is that while the public debate on GM was very poorly funded and so minimally advertised, it attracted far more public attention and involvement than the "public discussion" of human embryo cloning for research. This enabled the latter, unlike the former, to be carefully orchestrated by lobby groups like the Gentic Interest Group (GIG) and Progress Educational Trust, with connections to the pharma/biotech industries. It goes almost without saying that key figures in both GIG and PROGRESS are part of the LM network.
This suggests that in Taverne's world for public consultation to be effective it needs to be structured carefully to prevent domination by the *wrong* special interests! The Taverne/Furedi perspective on public debate contrasts markedly with that of the disability movement which argues that the social and ethical aspects of the introduction and use of new genetic technologies is not being properly debated and monitored at an early enough stage by people whose lives could be affected by them.
Like the Furediites with whom he aligns himself, Taverne, while presenting the critics as being beyond the reach of science and reason, shows little apparent regard for either logic or accuracy in the pursuit of his pro-biotech crusade. In the Prospect piece, for instance, he fulminates against GM campaigners for not protesting against GM drugs while protesting against GM foods. After all, he says, the same technology is used for both. He ignores the point that drugs are extensively tested before being released and that, moreover, they are taken by choice, by people who consciously weigh the risks of taking the drug against the risk of leaving their disease untreated. An individual's choice to take such a drug also does not limit another individual's right to avoid it. GM food crops are quite different in all these respects. And if it is consumers and the environment that are faced with the risks from products that have not been extensively or effectively tested not, while it is industry that reaps any rewards, is it really irrational for consumers and environmentalists to oppose their introduction?
Taverne's account of how scientific research is assessed is equally disingenuous. The results of research, he tells us, "will be subjected to objective scrutiny. Do the findings stand up to critical examination? Are they reproducible? Can they be verified or falsified?" This means that we do not need to worry about experimenter bias. "If the results are biased by the researcher's prejudices," says Taverne, "they will be worthless and his or her reputation will suffer". But how many other people may suffer in the meantime?
This is the case even where, unlike with GM, there appears to be extensive testing of products. George Monbiot recently noted how the Guardian had revealed that British and US scientists were, in return for a handsome fee, putting their names to research papers "ghosted" or co-written by employees of drugs companies. In some cases, the researchers have not even seen the raw data on which the papers' conclusions are based. A pharmacologist who has studied the practice told the Guardian it may well be that 50% of the articles on drugs in the major journals across all areas of medicine are tainted in this or a similar manner. Monbiot continues, "Among the papers he had questioned was one suggesting there was no link between SmithKline Beecham's anti-depressant drug Seroxat and an increased risk of suicide. Last year, the government managed to extract the company's original data. This showed that the drug trials revealed a clear increase in suicidal tendencies. Earlier this month a further leak, to the Panorama programme, revealed that the drug didn't even work. How many suicides might have been avoided if those scientists had not put their names to SmithKline Beecham's report?" http://www.guardian.co.uk/Columnists/Column/0,5673,1154611,00.html
Taverne's account of actual research findings is also questionable. Take, for instance, his account of the 'Love Canal' issue in Niagara, New York where "a community living in homes built on top of an old chemical waste tip claimed that they suffered an unusual incidence of birth defects, cancers and other diseases". Such claims are dismissed by Taverne as a misguided fuss about nothing. In reality, five separate studies, two of them by the New York Department of Health, showed that children at Love Canal suffered an excessive number of major and minor birth defects, chronic illnesses, and stunted growth. Yet Taverne uses the 'Love Canal' as a classic example of what he terms in his title "Safety Quacks" - the pseudo-scientific nature of "scares" about the impacts of technology. Should Taverne's failure to mention those research findings that contradict the claims in his article be put down to pontificating from a position of ignorance, or just a desire to believe the revisionist accounts of scientific issues that happen to suit his simplistic pro-corporate agenda?
Whatever his motivation, Taverne seems happy to serve as a Furediesque mouthpiece while the lobby group he chairs not only employs Furedi's followers but engages in the dubious tactics they are notorious for. Martin Cohen, the Editor of the journal of the Philosophical Society, 'The Philosopher', captured the group's approach in reporting how at a talk he gave at Leeds University in the early months of the Bosnian war, Frank Furedi's supporters sought to stifle debate and bury criticism of the Serbs "in a cynically calculated bombardment of misinformation and propaganda." http://www.gmwatch.org/profile1.asp?PrId=78&page=L
For more about Sense About Science and how they have manipulated the GM debate see: 'Rotten to the corp', Science in Society 21, Spring 2003 http://www.lobbywatch.org/archive2.asp?arcid=2785
Prospect, March 25, 2004
The Stewart inquiry into mobile phones shows the danger of taking public fears over science too seriously
Science is too elitist and needs to be more democratic, or so it is often said. A House of Lords committee on science and technology argued in 2000 that it is condescending to talk about a lack of public understanding of science, when public ignorance is mainly the fault of scientists failing to communicate. What is more, since science is not value-free, scientists will more readily gain public confidence if they declare the values which underpin their work and engage with the values and attitudes of the public. The public should be more involved in the direction of scientific research and risk assessment, since it "understands uncertainty and risk well." Only if science and technology is made more accountable and democratic can we restore public trust. Above all, we must be cautious. In order to avoid the mistakes made over BSE, we must pay more attention to public apprehensions and apply the precautionary principle.
The deep flaws in this approach are exposed in an important book by Adam Burgess, 'Cellular Phones, Public Fears and a Culture of Precaution'. The focus of the book is the 1999-2000 Stewart inquiry into the safety of mobile phones. Most of the book is a meticulous analysis of the origins of fears about microwaves, the reasons behind the creation of the inquiry, the evidence or lack of it about the harm microwaves cause and the very different reactions of different countries. The inquiry was a bizarre episode in the history of public inquiries, since there was no compelling reason for setting it up and because some of its recommendations seemed to contradict its own findings. Before the safety of mobile phones was questioned, there had been a number of alarms about microwave ovens and VDUs. But much more important was a protracted dispute in the US, from the 1970s until the mid-1990s, over whether electromagnetic fields (EMF) from overhead power lines were a cause of leukaemia in children. Despite exhaustive epidemiological studies, no evidence that this was so was ever found. (The White House science office estimated the cost of the scare, mainly from re-siting power lines, at $25bn.) Similar fears surfaced in Europe about possible harm from mobile phones. These fears spread when analogue phones were replaced by digital ones requiring more phone masts, which attracted greater attention. Articles appeared in the British press claiming that mobile phones "cooked your brains" (Sunday Times), caused hypertension, loss of memory, miscarriages and so on. It was alleged that people living near mobile phone masts developed cancer, and the Daily Express even claimed that "sickly pupils" recovered after leaving a school sited near a mobile phone mast. Of the hundreds of media reports about mobile phones or masts reviewed by the Stewart inquiry, 79 per cent alleged adverse health effects; only 9 per cent referred to the absence of scientific evidence. Concern was expressed about mobile phone masts sited near schools, though most complaints from the public were about the ugliness of masts and their effect on property prices.
The Stewart inquiry was not forced on the government by widespread public concern. Despite scare stories in the press, people liked their mobile phones and kept buying them. Nor was there any scientific evidence of actual or potential harm; on the contrary, a mountain of evidence was available from the US suggesting that claims about the dangers of EMF from power lines were unsubstantiated. An inquiry in the Netherlands had reached the same conclusion about mobile phones. The government acted because it wanted to show it was being ultra-cautious and, in the words of Tessa Jowell, the health minister at the time, "to keep ahead of public anxiety."
In due course, the Stewart inquiry confirmed the American findings that there was no evidence of any harmful effects. Nevertheless, it advocated caution and suggested that children should use mobile phones as little as possible and hold them away from their bodies. The committee also recommended further research, and the body which has been set up to carry it out has been authorised to spend a further GBP7m. The report pleased campaigners, who could argue that although it found no evidence of danger there was clearly something to worry about. Not surprisingly, it baffled the press. Were mobile phones a risk or not? The Mirror described it as "shambolic," and the Evening Standard talked of "safety chaos." Campaigns against mobile phone masts carry on; sales of mobile phones continue to rise. The Stewart inquiry is an example of the government's policy of trying to pacify critics of a controversial technology by meeting them halfway. It illustrates the defensive posture that scientists and experts have been forced into since the BSE disaster.
The Royal Society adopted a similarly defensive attitude in 2002 when it published an update on its report on genetically modified crops and human health. The update confirmed the society's previous findings that there was no evidence of danger to human health from GM crops. It went on to say, quite reasonably, that special care should be taken to monitor new food products for allergenic effects, whether they are derived from conventional or GM crops. However, its accompanying press release was phrased to convey the impression that the Royal Society was not making a case in favour of GM technology and did not regard it as free from risk. The press reported that the Royal Society had abandoned support for GM crops. Clearly the society felt it would command more public trust if it was seen to take public fears seriously. Yet the effect was to increase mistrust. The government has now decided to take the first step towards licensing GM crops on a case by case basis, by allowing the cultivation of a herbicide-tolerant maize, which has not only passed the EU's safety standards but which has been shown after a prolonged and thorough field trial to have beneficial effects on biodiversity. This is a brave decision, and contrasts with the government's previous policy of appeasement.
The leading opponents of GM crops are no longer influenced by scientific evidence, but have launched a semi-religious crusade. Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth do not object to genetically modified drugs, but they reject genetically modified plants as Frankenstein inventions. Yet precisely the same technique is used in the modification of a GM crop as is used to transfer a gene from one species to another to make human growth hormone, or human insulin for people with diabetes, or a blood-clotting agent for haemophiliacs. It is, of course, true that there is a wider impact on the environment with the planting of GM crops. But no rational principle can judge it right to make better drugs to protect us from disease but wrong to modify plants to make them resistant to insect pests.
What the opposition to GM crops lacks in logic it makes up for in passion. When I recently wrote an article for the Guardian in favour of GM crops, I was deluged with abusive emails within hours. It is argued that democratic governments should allow public opinion to decide what crops should be licensed. But this argument tends to conflate democracy with the activities of green campaigning groups. There is clearly an important role for public consultation over controversial scientific developments, but it needs to be structured carefully to prevent domination by special interests.
Imagine what the result of the stem cell debate would have been had the Roman Catholic church been selected to represent the public. The broadcast media tend to make the same mistake about who represents public opinion. They assume that green lobbies, such as Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and the Soil Association are disinterested representatives of the public instead of interested parties with their own agendas.
Demands to increase the public's involvement in the future direction of science have some merit. Scientific developments that raise moral issues, such as human cloning, cannot be left to a scientific elite and forced on the public, whatever its misgivings. If being "democratic" means that scientists should be open about the work they do, it is obvious that work that is done openly tends to allay suspicions about possible dangerous consequences. That was the main lesson of the BSE debacle.
Unfortunately, because of the work of animal rights terrorists or the needs of commercial secrecy, openness is not always possible. Science policy is primarily a matter for the elected government, with appropriate public consultation. But direct political control is fatal to good science, just as state control is the death of art. The birth of modern science at the time of the Enlightenment was made possible by the end of the domination of the church. Galileo famously challenged the right of the church to interfere with the scientist's quest for truth: "This would be as if an absolute despot, being neither a physician nor an architect, but knowing himself free to command, should undertake to administer medicines and erect buildings according to his whim-at grave peril of his poor patients' lives and speedy collapse of his edifices." His statement still applies when demos is substituted for despot.
In the US there have been several attempts to impose politically-correct criteria on research to prevent it straying into areas such as possible genetic explanations for crime or sexual proclivities. Democratic control means more oversight by publicly accountable committees. The result is a bias against unorthodoxy, originality and excellence. Perhaps the most common reason for demanding more public involvement lies in the belief that the assessment of risk should not be left to scientists, because conventional science is thought to have an in-built bias against discovering dangers to health. This was the implicit idea behind the Stewart inquiry and one possible explanation for its curious recommendations.
Burgess traces the history of this belief to a reaction against "a rationalistic, probabilistic approach to problems." This reaction was a feature of the "anti-toxic movement" that sprang up in the US in the 1970s, stimulated first by Rachel Carson's 1962 book The Silent Spring, and later by the battle waged at What evidence is there that science has an in-built bias against discovering risks whereas, in the words of the Lords committee, "the public understands uncertainty and risk well"? If the latter proposition were true, the lottery would collapse tomorrow. Parents would accept the MMR vaccine and worry much less about their children being murdered by strangers (it happens to fewer than one in a million children each year). Three quarters of the population would not worry about pesticide residues in food, as polls show they do. John Krebs, the head of the Food Standards Agency, has pointed out that one cup of coffee contains more carcinogens than we ingest from pesticide residues in food in a whole year.
It sounds democratic and flatters the public to say it understands risk well, but the claim is false. What role could lay opinion play in setting safe levels for pesticide residues in food, for example? Deciding whether the concentration of a particular chemical is harmful is a technical process that depends on expert knowledge. First, the presence of that compound must be detected in the food and the amount present measured, then it must be determined whether this amount will cause harm. The last stage may be difficult and expert opinions may well differ, but on the basis of the best available evidence a committee of experts sets minimum permissible standards, many times above the perceived safety level. If they are not ultra-cautious and someone is poisoned as a result, they will all be blamed. At least, that is the rational way of proceeding. Yet when the EU sought to replace the precautionary limit for total pesticide residues in drinking water by a science-based standard, it had to abandon its proposal after receiving 12,000 protest letters in a campaign organised by Greenpeace.
Burgess gives a similar example. The Environmental Protection Agency in the US tendered for public comment on "safe" levels for arsenic in water. But how can popular instinct, or the special insight of green activists, improve on the assessment of experts? How can intuition get it right except by pure accident? If consulted in unemotional circumstances, people generally acknowledge that the assessment of risk which depends on technical knowledge should be left to experts. Unless you are a Christian Scientist, you expect a specialist to diagnose whether you have a brain tumour or not. If you then need an operation, you employ a brain surgeon.
Even less logical is the demand that because science can never be value- free, scientists should openly declare the values that underpin their work. This is a hangover from the postmodernist and relativist fallacy that there is no objective truth and that science is only one truth among many, a social construct whose hypotheses depend on the standpoint and background of their proponents.
Of course scientists have moral and social values. Science does not. In the end, the motives of those who do research are irrelevant. Scientists may embark on a particular research project because they hope it will help mankind, make them famous, increase the profits of their company, or simply because they can get it funded. Whatever their motives or values, the results of their research will be subjected to objective scrutiny. Do the findings stand up to critical examination? Are they reproducible? Can they be verified or falsified? If the results are biased by the researcher's prejudices, they will be worthless and his or her reputation will suffer. Bad motives can produce good results and good motives bad ones. Similarly, privately financed research can make valuable discoveries just as the results of publicly financed research can be disappointing. Of course, corporate research is more likely to back research if its findings will profit the company, while publicly financed research is more likely to be directed at the public good. In the end, the results are what count.
The irrefutable response to the supposed relevance of a scientist's background, values and motivation is to ask the question put by Robin Fox of Rutgers University: what does it matter that Mendel was a European monk? His findings about the genetics of peas would have been no less valid had he been a black, Arabic-speaking atheist.
Perhaps the most worrying conclusion of Burgess's book is that the Stewart inquiry was a response to the new politics of precaution, which now plays an unduly prominent role in public life. It might have been justified if there had been overwhelming public concern. It would have been justified, even in the absence of public concern, if there had been scientific grounds for believing that mobile phones could be harmful to health. Neither was the case. Instead it was an application of the precautionary principle. This principle has not received the critical attention it deserves. Because it seems to reflect common sense - "better safe than sorry," "look before you leap"- it commands general assent. But it is a principle either so obvious that it is a useless guide to policy, so vague that it is meaningless, or an incentive for inaction that is positively dangerous to the well-being of our society.
Leaving aside the wealth of conflicting definitions (there are at least 14 official ones), it is most frequently invoked in circumstances where there is popular disquiet, uncertainty about the effects of innovation and an absence of scientific evidence. If we do not know whether something will cause harm, runs the argument, we would be wise not to take a chance.
But this is a reaction born of pessimism about science and the distrust of experts engendered by the experience of BSE. Why should we assume that unforeseen consequences must be harmful? They are just as likely to be beneficial. No one foresaw that aspirin would be a wonder drug, not only useful as a painkiller but as an agent to stop blood-clotting, heart attacks and strokes. Viagra was developed as a drug to combat angina. When the optical laser was invented in 1960, it was dismissed as an invention looking for a job. To assume that consequences must be harmful is the expression of a society that is fearful of the future.
The advocates of the principle ignore the need to weigh benefit against harm, or to consider the effect of taking no action - a failing common among environmentalists. Some NGOs, for example, are demanding a worldwide ban on the use of DDT, claiming it has been one of modern technology's disasters. Yet DDT has been the most successful agent ever invented for saving life. The WHO estimates that it has prevented more than 50m deaths from malaria. Since an effective ban came into operation, malaria has returned to many regions with a vengeance and now kills over 1m people a year in Africa. The politics of precaution projects harmful consequences into the future without allowing for future solutions.
There is talk of "irreversible effects." But many diseases once thought incurable can now be treated. Nearly all forecasts about technological developments decades ahead have proved false. Who foresaw the rapid worldwide spread of the mobile phone? Anticipated problems are often solved before they overwhelm us. Adherents of the precautionary principle are especially vocal among the opponents of genetic modification. They declare that absence of evidence of harm to human health or to the wider environment from GM crops is not enough. Since it is impossible to prove a negative, this is in effect a demand for a total ban. Martin Teitel, the former leader of the Council for Responsible Genetics in the US, has admitted that rather than make the politically difficult demand that the science of biotechnology be shut down, activists should force scientists to abide by the precautionary principle, because having to prove a negative means that "they don't get to do it, period."
The precautionary principle represents the triumph of the Spartan spirit, ever fearful of the terrors change may bring, over the Athenian spirit that looks for new worlds to conquer. If we aim to avoid all activities that might conceivably cause harm, we would do nothing. If the policy of precaution prevails, we will have to stop the world because some people want to get off.
WAS ANYONE HARMED AT LOVE CANAL?
Not long ago at a conference for science writers, a distinguished health reporter from the WASHINGTON POST stood at the podium and told the audience, "The weight of the evidence showed no effects at Love Canal." No one in the audience raised a hand to say, "Wait a minute--what about the published studies that showed health damage to the children?" The audience accepted without question the claim that no one had been harmed at Love Canal.
Evidently none of the 100 scientists and journalists in the room--including the gentleman at the podium--knew about any of the five separate studies, two of them by the New York Department of Health [1,2] and three by independent scientists, [3,4,5] showing that children at Love Canal suffered an excessive number of major and minor birth defects, chronic illnesses, and stunted growth. It was a shocking revelation of ignorance among science writers and scientists, and an impressive demonstration of how easily we ignore history.
Love Canal is a trench in the ground nearly two miles long, named for William Love who began digging in 1896. He hoped to carry barge traffic from the upper to the lower Niagara River, providing a way for ships to bypass Niagara Falls. For various reasons, Mr. Love's canal was never completed. Starting in 1942, the canal was filled with nearly 21,000 tons (42 million pounds) of benzene, toluene, chloroform, trichloroethylene, tetrachloroethylene, hexane, xylenes and leftovers from the manufacture of pesticides, such as hexachlorocyclohexane (Lindane) and hexachlorocyclopentadiene (used in the manufacture of Mirex and Kepone). As of 1980, U.S. government scientists had identified 248 individual chemicals in the Love Canal dump--a typical stew of refined petroleum products and chlorinated hydrocarbons.
In 1953, when the canal couldn't hold any more toxic waste, dirt was piled over it, and the land was sold to the local government for $1.00. The local government then built a school on top of the dump.
By 1977 chemicals could be detected in neighborhood creeks, sewer lines, and soil, in sump pumps in the basements of homes, and in the indoor air of those same homes. Chemicals had moved through the soil and seeped through basement walls. Pesticide residues bubbled up on the school playground.
It wasn't the health department that discovered the problem. It was young mothers talking to other young mothers about miscarriages, still births, and birth defects in their babies. One young woman named Lois Gibbs watched her children come down with one illness after another--rashes, serious breathing difficulties, near-fatal blood disorders. She screwed up her courage and started knocking on her neighbors' doors, asking if anything similar was happening in their families. An informal tally showed roughly half the babies born in homes near Love Canal during a 2-year period were born with birth defects. This finally got the state health department's attention and in 1978 the department published its first study  showing an unusually high number of miscarriages among Love Canal women. New York state then began to evacuate 325 families.
Subsequently state health department researchers Nicholas Vianna and Adele Polan  studied families living along areas called swales--natural depressions in the ground that tended to carry more water than average and thus provided pathways for chemicals seeping away from the toxic canal. They examined birth weights of infants born to families along the swales during 1940-1978. They found a significant excess of low-birth-weight babies born during the time when dumping was occurring (1940-1953). No such excess was evident for later years.
Low birth weight is not a trivial matter. Low weight at birth is associated with a lifetime of other problems--chronic diseases and learning disabilities. Lynn R. Goldman  studied a larger population--all the residents of single-family homes in the entire Love Canal neighborhood, an area three times as large as that studied by Vianna and Polan. They found an excess of low-birth-weight babies born during the period 1963-1980, with a prevalence of 16 percent low birth-weight along the swales and 10 percent in the non-swale areas, compared to 4.8% in a control area further away.
Beverly Paigen and others conducted a general health survey with interviewers inquiring about physician-diagnosed complaints of the parents of 523 Love Canal and 440 control children. They found a significant excess of seizures, learning disabilities, hyperactivity, eye irritation, skin rashes, abdominal pain, and incontinence in Love Canal children.  (See RHWN #104 .)
The same researchers measured factors related to physical growth of 493 Love Canal children and 428 control children using technicians (who were unaware of the children's place of residence) to conduct the measurements.  Of the Love Canal children, the 172 who were born there and had spent at least 75% of their lives there were significantly shorter for their age than were the control children. Female children from Love Canal began to menstruate an average of 8 months later than the control children, though this difference was not statistically significant (meaning, it could be due to chance variation). The physical differences could not be explained by chronic illnesses, race, height of parents, socioeconomic status, nutrition, stress, or birth weight. Because children who were born at Love Canal and lived there longer had a more pronounced reduction in their growth (compared to children who lived there less time), which scientists would term a "dose-response relationship," the researchers concluded that exposure to chemicals was the most likely cause of the growth retardation.
Taken together, these studies leave little doubt that living near Love Canal had negative effects on reproduction, development, growth and health of children.  Researchers from the National Academy of Sciences recently reviewed these studies and validated their conclusions. 
Studies of a population of wild rodents at Love Canal  also revealed significant effects on growth and longevity. Rowley and others studied the natural population of voles in area I immediately adjacent to the dump, in area II close to the dump, and area III about one kilometer (0.6 miles) away. Voles are small mouse-like mammals. The average life expectancy after weaning for voles in areas I and II was 23.6 and 29.2 days, respectively, compared to 48.8 days for the control animals in area III. Liver and adrenal gland weights among female voles, and seminal vesicle weights in males, were significantly reduced in area I compared to area III. Chlorinated hydrocarbons such as hexachlorocyclohexane were measurable in voles from area I and II but not from Area III.
The 42 million pounds of chemicals have never been removed from Love Canal. Instead, a clay "cap" was placed over the dump to try to keep rain out, to reduce the tendency for the chemicals to move through the soil. Surface soils were scraped away and placed in another "capped" chemical dump. Now Governor Mario Cuomo has given his personal approval to a plan to move poor families back into homes near Love Canal. Evidently, the purpose of the plan is to broadcast a message across America, a message developed by the chemical industry and sanctioned by leading politicians of both parties: "Love Canal is safe even though it was never cleaned up. Chemical dumps are something our children can live with." If the evident ignorance of science writers and scientists is any indication, the plan is working.
--Peter Montague, Ph.D.
 New York State Office of Public Health, and Governor's Love Canal Interagency Task Force. LOVE CANAL: PUBLIC HEALTH TIME BOMB. Albany, NY: New York State Office of Public Health, 1978.
 Nicholas J. Vianna and Adele K. Polan, "Incidence of Low Birth Weight Among Love Canal Residents," SCIENCE Vol. 226 No. 4679 (December 7, 1984), pgs. 1217-1219.
 Beverly Paigen and others, "Growth of Children Living Near the Hazardous Waste Site, Love Canal," HUMAN BIOLOGY Vol.  (June, 1987), pgs. 489-508.
 Lynn R. Goldman and others, "Low Birth Weight, Prematurity and Birth Defects in Children Living Near the Hazardous Waste Site, Love Canal." HAZARDOUS WASTE & HAZARDOUS MATERIALS Vol. 2 No. 2 (1985), pgs. 209-223.
 Beverly Paigen and others, "Prevalence of Health Problems in Children Living Near Love Canal," HAZARDOUS WASTE & HAZARDOUS MATERIALS Vol. 2 No. 1 (1985), pgs. 23-43.
 Beverly Paigen and Lynn R. Goldman, "Lessons from Love Canal, New York, U.S.A: The role of the public and the use of birth weights, growth, and indigenous wildlife to evaluate health risk," in J.B. Andelman and D.W. Underhill, editors, HEALTH EFFECTS FROM HAZARDOUS WASTE SITES (Chelsea, MI: Lewis, 1987), pgs. 177-192.
 Anthony B. Miller and others, ENVIRONMENTAL EPIDEMIOLOGY VOL. 1; PUBLIC HEALTH AND HAZARDOUS WASTES (Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 1991).
 M.H. Rowley and others, "Use of small mammals (voles) to assess a hazardous waste site at Love Canal, Niagara Falls, New York," ARCHIVES OF ENVIRONMENTAL CONTAMINATION AND TOXICOLOGY Vol. 12 (1983), pgs. 383-397.