NIAGARA FALLS, N.Y. (AP) – The Love Canal neighborhood’s recent exit from the Superfund list came with assurances that any environmental effects from the seeping chemical waste that forced its evacuation more than two decades ago had been addressed.

Measuring the health effects on the people who lived there has been a different matter.

A state Health Department study of birth defects, cancer rates and deaths among former Love Canal residents has stretched into a seventh year and cost at least $3 million.

The Health Department says it is committed to finishing the federally funded study, initially expected to take five to six years.

But already some former Love Canal residents – even some working on the study -are expressing doubts about its reliability and wondering aloud whether it has been worth the time and money.

The study’s preliminary findings indicate no spikes in cancer or death rates and minimal, if any, effects on births.

“It’s just not going to be conclusive,” said Patricia Grenzy, who grew up in Love Canal and is part of an expert panel advising the Health Department. “I think there was a lot of hard work put into this. It’s just going to be hard to pinpoint a lot of things.”

The neighborhood was built on and around a canal that for years was used as a chemical dump, and by the 1960s and ‘70s contaminated groundwater was leaching into back yards and school grounds. President Carter declared a federal emergency in 1978 and 1980, which led to the evacuation of some 900 families and the bulldozing of an elementary school and two streets built on the canal and the 21,800 tons of chemical byproducts it holds.

Passage of the 1980 Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act, known as Superfund, soon followed.

After standing for years as an eerie ghost town of abandoned schools, churches and houses with left-behind family portraits on the walls and curtains in the windows, some of the homes were revitalized and re-inhabited. Others were bulldozed and the land deemed safe only for industry.

The canal and the 21 tons of chemical waste it still holds are now buried under a thick clay cap, a high-density liner and topsoil and surrounded by a barrier drainage system.

Grenzy and others point to limitations within existing state and federal databases from which virtually all the information for the study is being culled. The “passive data collection” from cancer, mortality and birth defects registries required no direct participation from the roughly 6,100 former residents included in the study.

The department has acknowledged shortcomings in the process, saying that even if unusual health patterns were found, they could not necessarily be linked to the chemical exposure – the very goal of the study.

“Every epidemiological study has limitations,” read a September update posted on the DOH Web site with the release of preliminary birth results. “If an effect could not be found, it could mean there was none or it might indicate that we could not identify one.”

And, the update continued, “observing an effect does not prove a relationship existed between any potential exposure and the health effect.”

The department expressed similar cautions in a 2001 newsletter indicating the overall cancer rate of former Love Canal residents was no greater than for other upstate New Yorkers.

When the long-term study was announced, then-Health Commissioner Barbara DeBuono said it would be “the first comprehensive examination of the health status of the former residents.” The department compiled a 2 1/2 page list of previous health studies.

But those involved are hesitant to call this the definitive study.

“The population was small, the health effects that we may see, if any, may be small,” said advisory committee member Dr. I. Glenn Sipes, a biochemical toxicology expert. “It’s going to be tough.

“I think the most encouraging thing would be if we found no trends, then that would give us some positive feelings,” Sipes said.

Most troubling have been difficulties in tracking birth defects in Love Canal children, the most emotionally charged aspect of the study. It was Love Canal mothers comparing notes on their children’s ailments in the 1970s who sounded the first alarms about the environmental disaster that would ultimately give rise to Superfund.

But with the state’s “congenital malformations” registry not fully up and running until 1983, researchers were faced at the outset with a yawning gap in data. The Health Department contacted certain hospitals for birth records from 1960 to 1982 and estimates it accounted for 75 percent of Love Canal births from that period.

Even so, there is nothing to compare the data to because records of non-Love Canal births for the same period were not reviewed. And problems not immediately apparent at Love Canal births – such as malformed teeth or kidney disease – would be missed.

Former resident Barbara Quinby’s daughter, born before 1983, might not have been included in the statistics had Quinby not told Health Department representatives about her during a meeting.

“My daughter is mentally retarded, she was born legally blind and had a birth defect of the teeth,” said Quinby. “They’re not including who they should include and that’s a big problem.”

Incomplete preliminary findings reported in September indicate a 3 percent rate of birth defects among Love Canal babies born from 1983 to 1996, compared to a rate of 2 percent for the rest of upstate.

“The lack of knowledge doesn’t mean it therefore doesn’t exist. It just means we can’t find it,” said Lois Gibbs, a former Love Canal resident who led the homeowners’ charge for action.

Meanwhile, the girl-to-boy ratio among Love Canal babies was 51-to-49 percent from 1960-1996, compared to 49-to-51 percent for the rest of upstate.

Deputy Health Commissioner William Van Slyke said the preliminary findings had been given to the advisory committee for interpretation.

“We’re not certain of all the implications right now and that’s the question we need to answer,” he said.

“Unfortunately, I don’t think (the final report) will tell the residents of Love Canal very much more than what they already know,” said Stephen Lester, an environmental health and toxicology expert who serves on the Expert Advisory Committee.

Grenzy, who remembers slipping as a child on the goo that soaked part of her school’s playground and throwing exploding phosphorous “fire rocks” against the bricks, suffers a host of autoimmune and other ailments, some of which are shared by her daughter. There is no doubt in her mind that Love Canal is to blame.

In her role as an adviser, Grenzy said she has warned the Health Department against dismissing outright any relationship between illness and chemical exposure in its report to a population whose distrust of the department began with the crisis more than 25 years ago, when residents had to fight to be heard.

“This is the big fear of the residents, that they’re going to come out and say this was no big deal,” Grenzy said. “They’re going to have people coming out of the woodwork then – and I’d be first in line.”

Gibbs said the danger goes beyond offending former residents. The study is anxiously anticipated by other communities fighting to prove a link between environmental exposures and illness.

“They’re often told by the opponents, whoever they may be – sometimes they’re government, sometimes they’re private corporations – there was no problem at Love Canal and they had a higher level than you had here,” said Gibbs, who went on to establish the Center for Health, Environment and Justice, a citizens’ activist organization.

Quinby, who works with the Love Canal Medical Fund, established out of a lawsuit settlement to help former residents with medical bills, said that fund provides the truer picture of the health of Love Canal residents.

“We see what comes through there and what peoples’ problems are,” she said. “The cancer rate, heart problems, (multiple sclerosis). We see it.”

Said Lester, “A lot of hard work has gone into this (Health Department study), but I think it’s, in a way, an exercise that has not been very fruitful.”

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.