Heroes of Sustainability: Lois Gibbs

Lois Gibbs was on a mission. With just a U-Haul and her children, she left her home in New York to head to Washington, D.C., determined to start an organization that would help families living near toxic waste sites. As she left, her mom told her: “You’re forgetting you’re just a housewife with a high school education.”

Gibbs, though, was far more than that. In 1978, the 27-year-old had two sick kids (one with epilepsy and one with a blood disease) and discovered that her son’s elementary school was smack on top of a toxic waste dump, next to 20,000 tons of toxic chemicals, in Niagara Falls. They weren’t the only family with illnesses — high rates of cancer, miscarriages, and birth defects plagued the Love Canal neighborhood they called home.

Soon, Love Canal became known the country over as Gibbs mobilized her neighbors to protect their families and get the land cleaned up. After battling for more than two years against the government at local, state, and national levels, 800-plus households were moved out of the contaminated area.

Founding an Organization
Throughout the whole ordeal, Gibbs discovered that there was no organization to help others in a similar position — and she received calls from people all the time desperate for information and assistance. That spurred her move to D.C., where in 1981 she founded the Center for Health, Environment & Justice (then called the Citizens Clearinghouse for Hazardous Waste).

The goal then, as it is now, was to mentor a movement, empower people to build healthy communities, and prevent harm to human health caused by exposure to environmental threats. As the organization’s website says: “Through training, coalition-building and one-on-one technical and organizing assistance, CHEJ works to level the playing field so that people can have a say in the environmental policies and decisions that affect their health and well-being. By organizing one school, one neighborhood, one community at a time, CHEJ is making the world cleaner and healthier for all of us.”

Persistence and Patience
Gibbs may have been “just a housewife,” but she had sparked a national movement and vaulted herself into the public consciousness, with a made-for-TV-movie airing on CBS based on her story, and appearances on programs such as 60 Minutes, 20/20, Oprah, and Good Morning America.

As a result of her efforts, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency began the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act, commonly known as Superfund, which locates and cleans up hazardous waste sites throughout the country. Through the CHEJ, tens of thousands of people have been given crucial assistance to protect their own communities from toxins.

“Average people and the average community can change the world,” Gibbs has said. “You can do it just based on common sense, determination, persistence, and patience.”

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