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.

The company covered the canal and in 1953 sold it for one dollar to city officials. The deed warned of the dangers and included a disclaimer against future liability. An elementary school was built on the perimeter and by 1978 about 800 homes and 240 low-income apartments sprang up around it.

Deadly Brew Erupts

Residents say they were never told about the chemicals -- a brew so deadly it burned through its drums. After the record blizzard of 1977, melting snow raised the water table and toxins began erupting in residents' backyards.

Their school was equally contaminated. Children returned from recess in sludge-covered clothing with blackened burns on their hands. They scoured the grounds for "hot rocks" that, when thrown against a hard playground, sparked and once reportedly caught a child's pants on fire.

One spring after a heavy snow melt, a swimming pool literally popped up from the ground, surrounded by a "sea of chemicals," according to the EPA, and the air had a "faint choking smell."

Early surveys showed 56 percent of the children had a birth defect, and mothers had a 300 percent jump in miscarriages. In one family, a girl was born deaf and with a cleft palate, an extra row of teeth and slight retardation. Her brother had an eye defect.

Michelle Brown Skiba, a soft-spoken blond who works as a librarian at Niagara University, remembers playing in the "black muck" at Love Canal. As a child, she developed rheumatoid arthritis and had a growth removed from her knee.

She also never developed her second teeth. "All my friends had the same thing," she told

Skiba says her mother had six miscarriages before the family left when she was 12. Both her parents died nine years ago -- two days apart -- one from cancer and the other from a diabetes-related heart condition that was diagnosed at Love Canal.

Now 42 and married, Skiba said she had decided never to have children. "In the back of my mind, I didn't know what the future would bring."

It was Lois Gibbs, then a young mother and president of the homeowners association, who took action. She couldn't understand why her two children had an array of illnesses: epilepsy, asthma and urinary tract infections.

Her neighbor lost a 5-year-old to a kidney disease, and many others, like Retton's and Skiba's mothers, had miscarriages and stillbirths.

A newspaper article tipped her off to the presence of chemical waste and she organized a door-to-door campaign that brought national attention to the disaster. Eventually, she founded the Center for Health and Environmental Justice (CHEJ), where she now serves as executive director.

"There should be no more health studies, they've only created anxiety and frustration," said Gibbs, now 60, who wants Love Canal to serve as a "living laboratory" to help clean up 1,400 other Superfund sites across the country.

In 2004, the EPA removed Love Canal from its Superfund list, a list that was created in response to the Love Canal disaster.

"There is a misconception that it's been cleaned up, but there's still 20,000 tons of chemicals and no one has taken a single barrel out," she told "The waste that leaked into the soil is still there."

The dump has been capped and two treatment plants were built to catch contaminants, but critics say another big storm could unearth the chemicals anew.

Psychological and Medical Limbo

While experts say there is no scientific proof that all of these ailments were caused by chemical exposure, the children of Love Canal say their lives have been thrown into psychological limbo.

At 13, Michael Zimmerman remembers his parents' "anger, frustration and worry" over the evacuation. His sister had been born two months premature at Love Canal.

Now, 42, and a senior master sergeant in the Air Force Reserve, he worries about his own two children, though seemingly healthy. His 38-year-old brother and father are fighting cancer.

"It's always hanging over our heads," Zimmerman, told "I worry about when it's going to happen to me, like a time bomb going off and the exposure is going to catch up to me."

About 67 original Love Canal homeowners refused to leave in the 1970s and some of their homes are still standing. George Kreutz, Amanda Bach and their three boys -- all under the age of 5 -- moved to just one foot from the edge of the contaminated zone.

Rent was cheap and they loved the small, clapboard house until a green, chalky residue appeared in the basement. The couple had never heard of Love Canal and they can't afford to move.

"I'd leave here in a heartbeat," he told, pointing to what he believes are toxic apples that tempt his toddlers. "I can't take my eyes off my children."

In the 1990s, the city "reclaimed" some of the boarded-up houses and declared the area outside the perimeter safe. But in order to obtain mortgages, buyers had to sign waivers that they would not later sue.

David Bower, who was one of the first to buy a home from the city (for $38,000), pays little attention to the fenced wasteland just one street away.

"I'll be honest," the 42-year-old detective told outside his renovated ranch home. "This is the most tested part of the country. I know what's in the soil."

"It needs to go to rest," he said of the efforts of the outspoken Love Canal children. "I eat the vegetables in my garden and I'm not glowing in the dark."

But Stephen Lester, who was a toxologist and science adviser at Love Canal, says health studies are not telling the whole truth.

The New York study only measured birth outcomes after 1983, and it only asked residents about reproductive health and certain specific cancers.

"In many ways this is a curse," said Lester, now married to Gibbs and CHEJ's science director. "Because no one helped them to get straight answers, they are stuck with illnesses they think are connected to their exposure."

As far as the EPA is concerned, the case is closed. In 1995, Occidental Petroleum, parent company to Hooker Chemical, agreed to pay $129 million in restitution. Out of that federal lawsuit came money for a small health fund and $3.5 million for the state health study.

'Worse Than Vietnam'

But some say it was never enough. "It was worse than Vietnam," said one 60-year-old veteran whose wife lost a baby and whose daughter carries birth defects. Looters plundered his house as he continued to pay his mortgage and rent another home.

Today, he wages his own cancer battle and worries about speaking out, for fear of jeopardizing his job -- and his health insurance.

"There are thousands of people living with a monster in their lives that they cannot forgive or forget," he told, staring at the fallow field where his home once stood.

He blames everyone: city, state and federal government, as well as greedy builders and buyers. "People turned their backs on us."

Meanwhile, Renee Retton, begs her mother for details about the day she brought home a doll named "Julie Ann" and not a living sister.

"My mom won't talk about it and I am still grieving and trying to work it out and fight for those at Love Canal," she said. "But forgetting about her is like killing a part of myself."