An army of five fifth grade boys bellied their way across the carefully manicured lawn and slipped behind a clump of hydrangea bushes. Quietly they emptied an arsenal of little blue stones from their jean pockets, and upon command from Tony, their leader, hurled the projectiles at the enemy fort. The stones exploded upon impact shattering into thousands of pieces. The boys jumped up and surrounded the old shed.
"Billy's the only one here," Tony said disappointedly. Then he commanded, "To the Blue Goo torture chamber with him!"
The little army prodded their captive with bayonets that had been fashioned from oak branches. They nudged Billy through an open doorway and down a flight of stairs. He hesitated on the last step. A strange iridescent bluish black liquid bubbled up beneath him.
"No! Not the Blue Goo torture! I've heard tell it might be poison or something," Billy pleaded.
"It ain't poison. We've been playing in it for years and haven't died yet," Nathan taunted. And with that, the army began to toss bricks into the liquid, drenching their captive.
"Pop-rock" and "blue goo" war games were common place at Love Canal in the 1970's. I couldn't help but think about that when Carol Browner, Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in Washington D.C. announced government's decision to study the effects of environmental pollutants on children.
A few years ago I was taken on a tour of abandoned housing project that was condemned in 1978 when it was found to be polluted with toxic chemicals. Bob, my friend and tour guide who had grown up nearby, described what it had been like to live and play in this community.
"I spent a lot of time here when I was a kid," Bob said as he slowed the car. I gazed in amazement at the large parcel of fenced off land complete with its boarded up dwellings, church and schoolhouse. A large parcel of land was void of buildings. Homes that once stood in that location had been demolished because the area was considered too contaminated with chemicals to be made habitable. A chill rushed down my spine when I saw a large sign that read, "Danger, Hazardous Waste Area. Unauthorized Persons Keep Out."
Bob broke my train of thought. "There were these little blue stones that exploded like tiny hand-grenades when we hurled them against buildings. Then in the spring this weird iridescent bluish black stuff bubbled up in the basements. It emitted foul smelling fumes. It was like something out of a science fiction movie, only it was for real."
This was Love Canal, a housing project in Niagara Falls, New York. For Bob and me, Love Canal had tremendous significance. We are hazardous waste chemists, those scientists who trace their professional beginnings to the discovery of 21,000 tons of industrial waste containing more than eighty toxins buried beneath the Love Canal housing project. Residents of the contaminated site, particularly children, had suffered from a variety of sicknesses for several years. Some had even died. Nobody knew exactly why, but in the mid seventies many residents and environmentalists suggested that the illnesses might be caused by that strange gunk that bubbled up in people's basements whenever there was flooding. Government officials were reluctant to admit that pollution was the cause of Love Canal's health problems. They sensed that if, indeed, those tiny exploding rocks and the bubbly stuff could cause strange illnesses, there were probably thousands or maybe even millions of other such toxic dumps all over the country making people sick. Manufacturing companies also began to squirm nervously, since toxic wastes are produced by virtually every industry. Prior to 1978 there were few laws that determined how industry should dispose of unwanted chemicals. Many companies simply dumped them wherever it was convenient with little regard for people or the environment. Soon, though, the outcry from residents of Love Canal spread to the general population and could no longer be ignored.
Parents, teachers, children, environmentalists and health workers demanded immediate action. Scientists and government agencies began to gear up to meet the challenge. Federal funds were provided for clean-up efforts, not only at Love Canal, but all across America. Regulations were enacted to insure that all existing toxic waste dumps would be cleaned up and that no new ones would be created. Thus was born RCRA (The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act) and the resulting hazardous waste regulations. The Super Fund Act was enacted and along with it the cradle to the grave law. Using monies from the Super Fund, the government cleans up land that has been severely contaminated. The Cradle to the grave law allows the Federal government to seek payment from the individual or company who initially created the waste. Until a hazardous waste has been legally disposed of, the individual who generated it is responsible for any contamination that results from that material. All of these environmental safety nets were the direct result of what happened at Love Canal.
By 1988 Love Canal had been reclaimed utilizing state of the art technology and was declared safe for habitation. On August 15, 1990 Love Canal Area Revitalization Agency (LCARA) offered ten homes for sale on previously condemned land. Less than three weeks later sales contracts were approved on four houses, and by 1991 the new Love Canal community began to take shape. Children again ran across carefully manicured lawns, playing fantasy games. This time there were no "pop-rocks" or "blue goo."
In addition to the enactment of laws to protect humans and the environment from hazardous waste, there was yet another positive result of the Love Canal incident. Government funding was appropriated for research on pollution and human health. Puzzling as it may seem, while children are most likely be affected by environmental pollutants, until now only adults have been represented in most pollution studies. Late in 1995 that all changed. Carol M. Browner, Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency in Washington D.C. announced that research will now consider health risks to children and infants from environmental hazards of air, land, water and food.
Studies directed toward adults simply do not take into account the fact that a child's body is still growing and as a result reacts differently to chemicals. Children breathe more rapidly than adults and are likely to inhale more pollutants than adults even when they inhale the same concentration of air-borne pollutants. In addition, young people eat more fresh produce and drink more water, juice and milk for their body size than do adults. As a result they are more likely to be affected by environmental pollutants than their parents or teachers.
Play activities put children at higher risk for contamination than adults. Imagine finding rocks that explode on impact or bubbly iridescent goo oozing up in the basement. Wouldn't you be tempted to collect some to take to school? I would have been. The children at Love Canal played in contaminated dirt and water, put their fingers in their mouths and like most kids, occasionally ate without washing their hands.
Presently one in four Americans lives near an abandoned hazardous waste dump. Children play on these lands totally oblivious to the risks that loom in the soil. One child in six is at risk for lead poisoning from exposure to pre-1975 paint chips that may contain lead. Toddlers may ingest these particles while chewing on painted surfaces or pick them up while crawling on the floor. Even older children may unknowingly inhale lead contaminated dust from old paint. Approximately 40 percent of the nation's waterways are too contaminated for swimming or fishing. Many kids unaware of the risk, may be exposed to hazardous chemicals while enjoying a lazy day of fishing or an exhilarating swim. Two of every five Americans live in areas where the air they breathe is unhealthy, not just in cities, but also in farming areas when pesticides and fertilizers are improperly used. Air pollution is sometimes severe enough in some cities to force teachers to limit activities on the playground. Asthma is one of the leading causes of hospitalization of children, and this disease has been linked to air pollution. Until now, none of these facts have been taken into consideration in environmental pollution studies.
Not all chemicals were addressed in these studies. Target chemicals were selected for the Love Canal study. Of those selected, the following were reported to be present in significant concentrations.
Studies report that there were hundreds of unspecified chemicals, including 26 organic compounds which were found in the basements of homes (the "blue goo," many local folks called the outside ponds "the black lagoon").
The "pop rocks" were pieces of phosphorous also known as "hot rocks".
According to Ms. Browner the EPA expects the new policy to result in research that will provide the information needed in order to determine the risks that children face from environmental pollution.
"I want my son to be able to grow up and enjoy the wonders of the United States in the same way I have," said Ms. Browner at her swearing-in ceremony in January of 1993. "I believe that we will now be able to make an investment in our economy that we so desperately need, yet preserve the air, land and water." And Browner has continued to emphasize children in EPA policy making decisions.
For children who lived at Love Canal Carol Browner's Administration came thirty years too late. Results of the new research probably won't even provide answers in time to assure that today's adolescents grow up in a safe environment. Kids of today will still have to steer clear of blue goo and other suspicious looking stuff. But for infants and toddlers and future children the promise for growing up in a healthy environment suddenly looks brighter.
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