There are sounds of life in the peeling frame house on 96th Street, but they come from the household pets -- three dogs and 50 parakeets and finches.
The owners are living in a motel, far away from their home on this quiet, middle-class street where in the last 12 years eight people developed cancer, a small boy died of kidney failure and a dog with cancerous tumors was put to sleep.
Phyllis Whitenight comes home every morning to feed her pets in the three-bedroom house that her husband built 26 years ago on a small plot of land three blocks from the Love Canal. The Whitenights did not know then that the canal was a burial pit for 21,000 tons of toxic wastes from the Hooker Chemicals and Plastics Corp.
There are 15 homes on 96th Street and nearly all have been touched by illness. Mrs. Whitenight is one of six women who have had mastectomies because of breast cancer. Three houses away lives a man with bladder cancer and three houses past that a man with throat cancer.
Down the street, in the same house where a woman developed breast cancer, a 7-year old boy went into convulsions two summers ago and died of kidney failure. He often played in the creek behind his house where traces of dioxin, an extraordinarily toxic chemical, were later found.
His parents believe the child's death was caused by chemical poisoning.
"You don't have to be a doctor to know there is something wrong here," said Mrs. Whitenight, a slim, pretty mother of five. In the last few years she has been told she has breast cancer, that she and her husband have chromosome abnormalities, that her basement and the sewer next to the house are contaminated by chemicals, that the schoolyard behind her house contains low-level radiation and that the creek that meanders through a field down the street is infested with one of the most toxic chemicals known to man.
"The stress we've been under, my God, the stress alone could have caused the illnesses, much less the chemicals," she said. "I've had more sleepless nights than I can count."
Nowhere in this now-notorious neighborhood of small ranch homes is there more raw evidence of sickness than on 96th Street. Yet 12 of the 15 families are still living there, nearly one month after a national health emergency was declared at Love Canal and a joint federal-state program was set up to temporarily relocate 800 families. Their persistence is testimony to the confusion and ineptness that many Love Canal residents believe has characterized the state and large-scale hazardous waste crisis.
Nearly two years have passed since the New York State Health Department ordered the evacuation of pregnant women and infants from the "first ring" of homes bordering Love Canal. The entire ring of 237 homes was later evacuated and purchased by the state.
Since then, no comprehensive medical survey of the Love Canal residents has be completed, and no conclusive proof has been found to link the health problems there with chemical exposure.
"Reasonable men would conclude that if you have all these chemicals that are suspected carcinogens and you have all these health problems, that you could make the cause nexus," said Bonnie Casper, an enviromental specialist on the staff of Rep. John J. LaFalce, (D-N.Y.), whose district contains Love Canal.
"But health officials won't say that. They just don't feel comfortable saying that. We're really at the edge of science here and at the edge of the law."
"There has never been a comprehensive health survey made at Love Canal. Mine was not, New York State's was not. And the omission is not accidental," said Dr. Beverly Paigen, a Buffalo, N.Y., cancer research scientist whose controversial 1978 epidemiological study of 254 Love Canal residents showed high rates of miscarriages, birth defects, nervous disorders, epilepsy, hyperactivity and suicide.
"If I put myself in the governor's shoes," said Paigen, "I'd be worried about the precedent-setting nature of the case. I think they're afraid to find out the extent of the health effects at Love Canal."
Results of medical surveys conducted by the New York State Health Department have never been publicly released. Health Commissioner Dr. David Axelrod has contended that the surveys are confidential and disclosure would violate the privacy of residents.
The Enviromental Protection agency's chromosome tests. which triggered the May 21 health emergency declaration at Love Canal, have been severly criticized. Scientists have both supported and disputed the findings of chromosomal abnormalities in the tests, which the EPA commissioned for use in a $124.5 million government lawsuit against the Hooker company.
"It's just a classic case of bureaucratic ineptness and insensitivity to people's problems," said Casper. "The feds thought the state would take care of the problem. The state wanted the feds to do it. And everyone was probably hoping that it would just all go away."
Blame for much of the confusion surrounding the Love Canal crisis can be laid on both the state and federal government's lack of policy to deal with hazardous waste disasters.
One of the first attempts to meet the problem was the 1976 Resources Conservation and Recovery Act, which is aimed at controlling and regulating the chemical waste industry. Another proposal to create an environmental "superfund" to clean up the nation's most dangerous waste cites, with industry paying three-fourths of the cost, has not yet been approved.
As the search for solutions continues, new toxic waste problems are rapidly coming to light across the country. Leaking chemical dumps in Memphis have been blamed for high cancer death rates and respiratory problems. The 600 residents of Triana, Ala., have been exposed to toxic chemicals illegally dumped into the town's drinking water. And in the heavily industralized community of Woburn, Mass., experts say residents have been exposed to almost every known major form of hazardous waste pollution.
The EPA estimates there are as many as 34,000 potentially hazardous dumpsites in the nation.
So far, New York State has spent more than $35 million and the federal government more than $6 million at Love Canal. Lawsuits against Hooker and its parent company, Occidental Petroleum corp., total more than $750 million. i
Hooker says that it buried 21,000 tons of pesticides, cleaning solutions and other toxic wastes in the unfinished canal between 1947 and 1952 in accordance with "state of the art" technology at the time.
The land was later deeded to the Niagra Falls Board of Education for $1, and a school was built on the site. The company adamantly denies it has any responsibility for problems at Love Canal and insists that further government tests will refute claims that health disorders in the area are related to the chemicals.
Meanwhile, the residents of Love Canal are in legal and medical limbo while the state and federal governments pay $1.3 million a month to put them up in hotels and apartments.
"Our lives are just continually on hold and it's driving us crazy," said Phyllis Whitenight, who has moved with her husband and two children into a government-paid $110-a-night suite at a downtown motel.
As of last week, 320 of the 800 families eligible for relocation were living in hotels, motels, apartments and military housing; 144 other families have filed applications to move. The government estimates that it will spend more then $8 million on the relocations effort.
Most of those who stayed behind are either too attached to their homes to leave or frustrated by the federal government's refusal to buy their homes and permanently move them out of the neighborhood.
But some residents say they will never move away.
"Who's going to take care of my house and all my good furniture if I leave?" asked Catherine Zappendorf, a 64-year old widow who refuses to abandon her bungalow a few blocks away from the canal.
She and her husband, who died four years ago, bought the house in 1955 and devoted much of their time to fixing it up. Even though Zappendorf has a persistant skin rash and even though she watches her neighbors moving away every day, she says she will probably stay.
"We were just poor people when we started out and this house was my husband's pride and joy," she said last week. "It's going to be a sad day when I have to walk away from it."