Toxic Waste in the Neighborhood: The Love Canal Disaster

In 1978, toxic chemicals leaking from an old landfill thrust an upstate New York community called “Love Canal” into the national headlines, and made it synonymous with “environmental disaster.”

The toxic waste at Love Canal transformed the small suburb of Niagara Falls, and raised questions that still resonate today.

In the spring of 1978, Lois Gibbs, a local housewife, read a local newspaper story and discovered she was living a few blocks way from some 20,000 tons of toxic waste buried in an old landfill, located in the center of the Love Canal community.

That waste had been dumped and covered up in an old canal in the 1940s and 1950s by a local chemical company, and was now leaking into backyards and basements of nearby homes. Some residents claimed those chemicals had given them a gamut of health problems.

Gibbs soon organized a grass roots movement that eventually compelled the state to evacuate some 900 families. It laid the groundwork for Superfund legislation in 1980, which aimed to prevent future “Love Canals”—and provide funds to remediate those that had already happened. Love Canal was among the first to be addressed.

By 1990, the state of New York declared portions of Love Canal inhabitable, and put some 200 refurbished homes up for sale at below market prices. Nearly all the homes found a buyer.

But now, decades later, the battle over Love Canal has resurfaced.

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For teachers
  • Producer: JP Olsen
  • Reporter: Scott Michels
  • Editor: Kristen Nutile

For Educators


This 11-minute video provides students with a compact and engaging introduction to the history and environmental science surrounding the toxic pollution underneath the community of Love Canal near Niagara Falls, New York. The video shows students how Love Canal became one of the most famous cases of pollution in American history, and how the advocacy of the residents affected by this pollution triggered the creation of the E.P.A’s “Superfund” program. Useful as an introduction to any unit focusing on how pollution affects humans and ecosystems, the video sets up a discussion on the difficulty of tracing the effects of pollution within ecosystems.

Background reading

In the summer of 1978, a suburb of Niagara Falls, NY with the unlikely name of “Love Canal” focused national attention on the deadly dangers of toxic waste.

Some 20,000 tons of toxic chemicals that had been buried in an old canal on a 16-acre site in the 1940s and 1950s, and were now leaking into the basements of surrounding homes – and a nearby elementary school.

The leaks had polluted the groundwater system, generated horrible odors, and contributed to a range of health complaints, including cancers and birth defects, or so some residents claimed.

Worse, many residents were outraged as they never knew they were raising their families next to an old landfill leaking some 82 toxic chemicals, 11 of which were determined by state officials to be carcinogenic.

That anger galvanized residents into an effective grassroots movement that eventually forced the state to evacuate – and compensate – some 900 families. It also laid the groundwork for “Superfund” legislation, which aimed to provide funds to remediate similarly contaminated sites nationwide.

Love Canal was among the first of some 400 sites to be addressed, but it took nearly 20 years and cost some $400 million.

By the 1990s, the state of New York declared portions of the site habitable, and put some 250 refurbished homes up for sale. Nearly all were sold.

Although the old landfill was capped and surrounded by monitors, tons of toxic chemicals remain on the site.

Lesson Plan 1: Toxic Waste in the Neighborhood

Students will learn how toxic waste dumped under the community of Love Canal led to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund program.


Students will:

  • Examine the circumstances around the Love Canal disaster.
  • Examine the effects of exposure to toxic chemicals on humans.
  • Use geospatial technologies and spatial data to examine characteristics of Superfund sites.
  • Analyze how public policy can affect the environment.
Essential questions
  • What role do government agencies play in monitoring and responding to chemical disposal?
  • How can maps and spatial thinking help to inform local responses to environmental issues?
  • How did the obligations of companies to safely dispose of chemical waste change after the Love Canal incident and the passage of Superfund legislation?

College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies

  • D2.Civ.1.9-12. Distinguish the powers and responsibilities of local, state, tribal, national, and international civic and political institutions.
  • D2.Civ.5.9-12. Evaluate citizens’ and institutions’ effectiveness in addressing social and political problems at the local, state, tribal, national, and/or international level.
  • D2.Civ.12.9-12. Analyze how people use and challenge local, state, national, and international laws to address a variety of public issues.
  • D2.Civ.13.9-12. Evaluate public policies in terms of intended and unintended outcomes, and related consequences. 
  • D2.Geo.1.9-12. Use geospatial and related technologies to create maps to display and explain the spatial patterns of cultural and environmental characteristics.
  • D2.Geo.3.9-12. Use geographic data to analyze variations in the spatial patterns of cultural and environmental characteristics at multiple scales.
  • D2.Geo.4.9-12. Analyze relationships and interactions within and between human and physical systems to explain reciprocal influences that occur among them.

Common Core Literacy Standards

  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RST.9-10.2: Determine the central ideas or conclusions of a text; trace the text’s explanation or depiction of a complex process, phenomenon, or concept; provide an accurate summary of the text.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.11-12.1: Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, connecting insights gained from specific details to an understanding of the text as a whole.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy WHST.6-8.9 – Draw evidence from informational texts to support analysis reflection, and research.

Next Generation Science Standards

  • HS-ESS3-1: Construct an explanation based on evidence for how the availability of natural resources, occurrence of natural hazards, and changes in climate have influenced human activity. 
  • HS-ESS3-4: Evaluate or refine a technological solution that reduces impacts of human activities on natural systems.
  • MS-LSS2-2: Construct an explanation that predicts patterns of interactions among organisms across multiple ecosystems.
  • MS-ESS3-2: Analyze and interpret data on natural hazards to forecast future catastrophic events and inform the development of technologies to mitigate their effects. 
  • MS-ESS3-3: Apply scientific principles to design a method for monitoring and minimizing a human impact on the environment