Love Canal's Lethal Legacy Persists

Renee Retton carries the 1978 photo of her pregnant mother as a reminder of the baby sister who was never born.

The near-term infant was delivered stillborn four days after she died in utero -- just months after the family had evacuated from Love Canal, a Niagara Falls, N.Y., neighborhood that sits atop 22,000 tons of toxic waste.

Like her sister "Julie Ann" and thousands of other children, Retton was conceived during the nation's worst chemical disaster.

Her medical history is daunting: an arterial birth defect, deformed teeth, thyroid disease, pernicious anemia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and a string of auto-immune conditions.

And now, on the 30th anniversary of Love Canal, a preliminary New York State Department of Health study says women like Retton, whose mothers were pregnant and exposed to those chemicals, have double the risk for reproductive problems -- low birth weights, pre-term deliveries and birth defects.

They are also at higher risk for kidney, bladder and lung cancer, according to a not-yet-released study of the health effects at Love Canal.

There, in a seemingly idyllic subdivision of swales, fields and neat bungalows, children played as carcinogens like benzene and dioxin bubbled up from the earth below. More than 6,000 residents were affected.

"It's scary," Retton told, as she walked ankle-deep in the untended brush where her childhood home was demolished in the clean-up effort.

"I feel like a research animal," said Retton, a redhead with cherubic features and waif-like limbs. "I don't think anything I have now compares to what I will get later. It's not if, it's when."

Family Fights Cancer

Retton's 27-year-old brother has just had a growth removed from his back. Their father was recently diagnosed with stage-four cancer, and their mother has had several breast cancer scares.

The 30-year-old manicurist said doctors told her they fear it might be "difficult" for her to carry a pregnancy to term.

Today, three decades after 900 families were evacuated, the children of Love Canal are coping with a lethal legacy that they say has spilled across generations: birth defects, cancers and auto-immune disorders.

The New York State Department of Health would not comment on any health problems facing these children, all now adults and of child-bearing age. "Our study is not complete yet," spokesperson Claire Posposil told

The Environmental Protection Agency calls Love Canal "one of the most appalling environmental tragedies in American history," and many believe the site is still deadly.

Today a menacing chain-link fence surounds an eerily peaceful meadow. No signage or visitor center points to its poisonous past. Only the chemical monitors that poke out of the wildflowers and two humming treatment plants suggest what lurks below.

Retton likes to think of the fence as a metaphor -- "the bars of justice" -- and wonders why, if the land is so safe, it's still off limits. She has pledged to fight for other victims by studying to be a legal nurse.

"The grass is really green," she said about the site. "It's a reminder of the goo underneath."

The canal itself -- an unfinished project named for entrepreneur William Love, who tried to connect the upper and lower Niagara River -- was by the 1920s a dump site for the Hooker Chemical Company.

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