E Magazine
July - August 2003

Be Safe!
Lois Gibbs’ New Campaign Urges Caution on Toxic Chemicals
By Linda Baker

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

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.”

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