THE WORST LAND DEAL ever made was the purchase by the Niagara School Board from the Hooker Chemical Company of 15 acres for the price of $1. Buried just under the surface was a stew of more than 80 different chemicals including known and suspected carcinogens. Today, nearly 20 years later, more than $2 billion in lawsuits against various parties are pending in different courts. But the story of what really happened at Love Canal -- to the people who lived there -- is just beginning to be told.
The latest development is the flap over new revelations of possible chromosomal damage. The way this tragic medical evidence is emerging is hurting all sides -- the public's understanding of the dangers involved, confidence in the methods of objectivity of science and, most of all, the residents of Love Canal.
From what is known so far, it is clear that the government set out to collect evidence for its pending lawsuit against Hooker; it did not set out to undertake scientifically valid research. The standards for the two are quite different, so much so, in fact, that the evidence that now exists tells little if anything about how much damage has been done to how many people, whether it is the result of chemical exposure, and what the health implications -- including the posibility of cancer -- may be.
While the government's approach was adequate for its legal purpose, it failed to handle the results in a way that would make clear to the public what the evidence did and didn't show. Even worse, because the story leaked, the public knew the results before they had been conveyed to the individuals who had been tested. In a clinical or academic setting, that would be a nearly unforgivable violation of medical ethics.
Meanwhile, scientists who saw the research report immediately pounced on its obvious inadequacies. The Environmental Protection Agency then requested an independent review by experts from the National Institutes of Health, among others. The experts dashed off to Houston to review the results firsthand, but were unable to agree with EPA's contractor over the composition of the review group, and flew home without seeing the evidence. Regardless of who was at fault, what happened in Houston was a sorry spectacle that can only undermine confidence in properly managed research by making it appear that the validity of scientific results depends on who looks at them. While this is often true when facts and policy are entangled, it should not be the case in a situation like this one.
EPA has now announced that 700 Love Canal families will be temporarily relocated and that it will request funds for the exhaustive medical studies that are needed to determine whatever damage has been done to the resident's health. This is the right decision -- though terribly, and unnecessarily, overdue.
What the government did may have made sense at one point in terms of its suit against Hooker. But it should now be evident that it has an additional responsibility to design and manage subsequent studies in a way that is sensitive to the larger political and human dimensions. With all this, it should not be forgotten that the party that dumped the poisons at Love Canal was not the government -- it was Hooker Chemical.