Lois Marie Gibbs used to wonder why her young son, Michael, was sick all the time. Then she found out. Her family was living on top of 20,000 tons of toxic chemicals, which had been dumped into an abandoned turn-of-the-century canal near Niagara Falls. The name of the place was Love Canal.
By organizing her neighbors in the Love Canal Homeowners Association and forcing the federal government to address the crisis, Gibbs became an icon of the modern environmental movement. President Jimmy Carter eventually ordered the evacuation of 900 families from Love Canal in October 1980. Two months later, Congress created the Superfund program to clean up the nation's worst toxic sites. And Lois Gibbs acquired a nickname: Mother of Superfund.
So where is Gibbs now, as Superfund approaches its 25th anniversary? The answer is, in a nondescript office building in Falls Church, Virginia, where she runs an organization called the Center for Health, Environment and Justice (CHEJ). The center's goal comes straight from her Love Canal experience: to organize ordinary people to combat the toxic threats they face in their everyday environment. Her philosophy is easily summarized, Gibbs says: "We should be looking at how much harm we can avoid, as opposed to how much harm we can tolerate."
Children remain her special passion. She's still astonished, 25 years later, at how little regulation exists to protect them from environmental hazards. There are no federal rules, for example, requiring schools to be built at a safe distance from known environmental hazards. She reels off a list of schools around the country that have been built on or adjacent to old military dumps, abandoned oil fields, incinerator-ash dumps, chemical plants. Almost invariably, they are located in low-income or minority communities.
These days she expects no help from Washington. What relationship does CHEJ have with the current administration? Gibbs thinks about it and shakes her head: "Absolutely none. It's shrunk to zero." Then she thinks for a minute more and smiles wryly. "Well, there's Chafee, of course." Lincoln Chafee, she means, the famously independent moderate Republican senator from Rhode Island.
One of the center's biggest campaigns is to end the use of polyvinyl chloride -- the "poison plastic," Gibbs calls it. PVC is lethal at the beginning of its life, since its production involves large amounts of chlorine, and hazardous at the end. PVC can't be recycled; you can't reliably dispose of it in landfills; and when it's burned, the result is emissions of dioxin. Gibbs finds that people are always surprised to learn that hospital incinerators emit especially high concentrations of dioxin. "Most doctors and nurses have no clue about this," she says, "which is pretty ironic, when you consider that the doctor's oath is 'First, do no harm.' "
Listening to Gibbs talk, you start thinking of snapshots from a typical day. Give baby drink in plastic cup; put bib on baby; give baby rubber duckie to play with; put lunch leftovers in plastic wrap; drink soda; go to bathroom, pull back shower curtain, and shampoo hair; put baby in stroller; walk to drugstore and buy cleaning products, sunblock, baby oil, liquid soap; pay with credit card. The entire experience is a parade of products that commonly contain PVC. Gibbs knows what Rachel Carson knew: Habituation, the acceptance of the abnormal as normal, is an ever-present threat.
People have to be convinced that safe, cost-effective alternatives are available, Gibbs insists: "It's not that you have to choose between living in today's world or going to live in a cave with a candle." Some corporations are beginning to listen, she says. Microsoft, Nike, and Johnson & Johnson have all agreed to phase out PVC use. So has Limited Brands, which owns Bath & Body Works and Victoria's Secret. "That one was fun," Gibbs grins. "Victoria's Dirty Little Secret."
So 25 years later, how does she feel about the Mother of Superfund label? "I'm proud of it," Gibbs says. "The only time it frustrates me is if it interferes with people seeing what we're doing now. Because I'm proud of that too."