Be Safe! Lois Gibbs New Campaign Urges Caution on Toxic Chemicals

Twenty-five years after pregnant women and children were evacuated from the neighborhood bordering the Love Canal toxic waste site, environmental health pioneer Lois Gibbs is poised to launch a national campaign aimed at redirecting the way government and industry regulate environmental hazards in the United States.

The Center for Health, Environment and Justice (CHEJ), the organization Gibbs founded in 1981 after propelling Love Canal and hazardous waste concerns to the forefront of the nation’s environmental consciousness, is moving in a new direction. It will become the coordinator of the Environmental Health Alliance, a coalition of 160 groups formed around the Blueprint Ensuring our Safety and Future Economy (BESAFE) campaign.

"We wanted to use this anniversary as an opportunity to ask: Where do we need to go, and how do we move forward?" says Gibbs. "We’re talking about a massive education campaign, about how to take precautionary actions and steps to avoid Love Canals or Love Canal-like incidents."

Organized around four basic principles, the BESAFE platform calls on government and industry to heed early warnings about hazardous materials, put safety first, utilize a democratic decision-making process and choose the safest solution. The goal of the campaign is to build public and political support for national pollution prevention policies.

As is often the case on environmental issues, many local and international communities are way ahead of the U.S. federal government. The European Union recently adopted the so-called "precautionary approach," emphasizing that chemicals have to be proven safe before use. Within 11 years, all chemicals must be accompanied by public data on hazards or risk being taken off the market. Anything known to be carcinogenic, cause reproductive effects or persist in the environment would be prohibited. In the U.S., where the Bush administration fiercely opposes the European approach, several cities have implemented precautionary policies surrounding pesticide use in schools and government procurement standards.

Lois Gibbs (inset) became an activist in the 1970s when her community, Love Canal, New York, became a national symbol of toxic pollution. Much of the town is still off-limits.© Galen Rowell / Corbis

"The handwriting is on the wall," says Peter Montague, the director of the Environmental Research Foundation and one of the authors of the "Wingspread Statement on the Precautionary Principle," drafted in 1998 at a groundbreaking environmental health conference in Wisconsin. "The current risk-assessment approach has never worked," he says. "We will get to a precautionary world, sooner or later."

For some context on the BESAFE campaign, go back to the 1950s, when the Hooker Chemical Company, a subsidiary of Occidental Petroleum, dumped 20,000 tons of toxic chemicals into the Love Canal waste site near Niagara Falls, New York, covered it with dirt, and sold the land to the Board of Education for a dollar. Homebuilding in the area also began in the 1950s.

Twenty years later, Lois Gibbs was raising her family in Love Canal, when she discovered that her son’s elementary school was located on top of a chemical waste site leaking dioxin, among other poisons. Through trial and error, she organized her neighbors into the Love Canal Homeowners Association and led a successful battle demanding corporate and government accountability to clean up and relocate Love Canal residents. A modern David vs. Goliath myth was born.

Then came A Civil Action, the book and movie based on a devastating case in Woburn, Massachusetts, in which children developed leukemia after drinking city well water contaminated with chemical solvents. It was followed by the celebrated film about Erin Brockovich, a single mother of three who in the mid 1980s found out that Pacific Gas & Electric was dumping millions of gallons of cancer-causing chemicals into ponds in Hinkley, California.

For Gibbs, the enduring message is this: Government and industry don’t always act to protect citizens from environmental hazards. The core problem, she says, is that regulations governing use and disposal of toxic chemicals are fundamentally flawed. "As a society, we begin with this toxic thing and say: "How much can we put in the environment before somebody is harmed?"" Gibbs says. "This risk-assessment approach means there is a subset of our society that will always be sacrificed. And there is no sense that there is something else we can do."

That’s why the BESAFE precautionary campaign, she says, represents nothing less than a paradigm shift for American environmental policy. "It asks: "Is there something out there that is safe? If there isn"t, what is the least-toxic material available? Are there innovative safe technologies we should develop?""

In Europe, it’s already the law. In the U.S., it’s just beginning to be put into practice. Local jurisdictions in Massachusetts and Maine, for example, have passed ordinances banning pesticide use in schools unless deemed absolutely necessary. In Seattle, city officials recently adopted a procurement policy encouraging toxin-free products.

To get more of these local precautionary ordinances passed and to create a big tent campaign, the Environmental Health Alliance is building partnerships with local, regional and national groups. CHEJ has also developed 40 brochures explaining how the precautionary approach translates into different issues such as green building, clean computers, landfills and children’s environmental health. CHEJ’s Green Flags program encourages parents, teachers and kids to get involved in making their school environment- and kid-friendly.

"We are looking forward as always to partnering with Gibbs to empower people to make change," says Lynn Thorpe of Clean Water Action, part of the Environmental Health Alliance. After launching the public education campaign in seven targeted states this fall, the Environmental Health Alliance hopes to obtain one million BESAFE platform signatures in time to present to the new Presidential administration in 2005. "We hope it’s a new administration," observes Gibbs.

Environmental justice organizations such as CHEJ are blazing the precautionary trail, says Montague. "The larger mainstream environmental groups are still committed to a "my-expert-is-better-than-your-expert" approach," he says. "But environmental justice groups have far less power and can’t win the dueling scientific experts battle."

By focusing on reasonable nontoxic alternatives, says Montague, environmental protection under the precautionary principle "becomes a public debate in which everyone can jump into the democratic process."