‘Okay, You Want to Fight Back?’
Lois Gibbs found her voice at Love Canal. Thirty years later, in her latest crusade, she has Fortune 500 companies rolling over faster than she can create her hit list.
In 1978 Lois Gibbs was a 27-year-old housewife with two young children, living in a subdivision in Niagara Falls, New York. Her husband worked in a nearby chemical plant, which emitted an acrid smoke that crept over the homes and lapped at doors and windows. Nobody minded the odor—it was the smell of jobs.
The community’s future looked bright—until Gibbs and her neighbors were told that the land beneath them contained more than 21,000 tons of chemical waste buried by the Hooker Chemical and Plastics Corporation (now the Occidental Chemical Corporation). She immediately wondered whether the Love Canal waste dump was linked to the serious, unexplained illnesses suffered by her children—asthma, epileptic seizures, liver and urinary tract problems. Gibbs soon discovered many families were ill, and her anger transformed the shy housewife into one of the nation’s strongest voices for environmental justice.
You might call her the Rosa Parks of the environmental movement. “She was an ordinary citizen, but she had enormous natural leadership qualities,” says Linda Greer, director of the health program at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Her organizing set the tone and scope of what was to become the 1980 Superfund bill.” In the preface to Gibbs’s autobiography, Ralph Nader wrote, “Lois Gibbs proved that an ‘average’ person could become empowered enough to change not only her life but the lives of others. [She is] a role model for people struggling for social justice around the world.”
It turned out Love Canal was just the beginning for Gibbs. The tragedy set off a firestorm of phone calls from citizens concerned that they, too, were suffering from toxic atrocities in their own communities. “Three thousand people called the Love Canal Homeowners Association near the end of our struggle,” says Gibbs. “They were saying, ‘Oh, my God, I have one of those sites.’ Or, ‘They want to put one in my backyard.’ I remember thinking, ‘I have to help them.’ ”
The petite brunette, whom we remember with a placard in her hand and a three-year-old daughter balanced on her hip, had no idea how to create a national nonprofit organization. “Before Love Canal my biggest decision was what to make for supper,” she says with a laugh. But by 1981 she had $20,000 in hand to found the Citizen’s Clearinghouse for Hazardous Waste, which has since been renamed the Center for Health, Environment and Justice and is located in Falls Church, Virginia, just across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C.
Today Gibbs is a 57-year-old mother of four with the girl-next-door appearance of Sally Field and the strong-willed spunk of Erin Brockovich. She is as comfortable negotiating in the boardroom as she is sitting around the dining room table alongside working-class families. With a $1.5 million budget, and 14 full-time staff, her group is taking on one seemingly invincible corporation after another—and winning.
McDonald’s felt her early wrath when she hatched the “McToxics” campaign in 1987 to persuade the fast-food chain to stop using wasteful Styrofoam clamshell containers, which carry suspected carcinogens. “When you burn Styrofoam it releases greenhouse gases and dioxin,” says Gibbs, “and when it’s buried it doesn’t ever degrade.” Instead of launching a boycott, her group simply requested that McDonald’s wrap sandwiches in paper.
Gibbs’s foot soldiers were the company’s most valued customers: children. Recruited through scout groups and parent-teacher associations, they poured into their local McDonald’s at rush hour with television crews and newspaper reporters in tow. When a segment of a boy crying because a McDonald’s manager wouldn’t let him have his burger wrapped in paper was aired on prime-time TV news, “it launched us into a national arena,” says Gibbs. “McDonald’s rolled over, and most of the fast-food industry fell in line.”
The same tactic worked when her group revealed “Victoria’s Dirty Little Secret,” a cleverly named campaign (duplicated by activists protesting the forests logged for catalogues) that aimed to stop the angel-winged lingerie icon’s parent company, Intimate Brands, from using polyvinyl chloride (PVC) bottles for its bath gels, lotions, and body sprays. At first Gibbs approached politely, contacting the company’s executives and public relations representatives. She explained why it would be socially responsible to stop using toxic PVC, a plastic that, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, is hazardous to the liver, kidneys, and central nervous system; increases the risk of cancer; and has been linked to reproductive problems. Next she teamed up with Greenpeace and reached out to the company’s core customers: women 18 to 22 years old, a time in their lives when studies show that they’re apt to develop lifelong brand loyalty. College environmental groups spread the word, inciting 6,000 young women to fire off e-mails to the company in just two days. Intimate Brands quickly surrendered.
Products such as windows and flooring containing PVC (commonly found in vinyl) have become central to Gibbs’s mission to “prevent harm,” because she says they are dangerous at every stage of their existence. Rubber duckies and a host of other kids’ toys are made with PVCs, and “where do children put them?” asks Gibbs. “In their mouths. Because that’s what kids do.”
During the manufacture and disposal of PVCs, toxins leach into groundwater and if burned are emitted into the air, adversely affecting the health of both wildlife and people. Gibbs points to a stereotypical medical incinerator near Florida’s Lake Apopka, west of Orlando. “This is the place with those studies about the alligators that are unable to reproduce because they have undersized genitals,” she says. “Nobody said, ‘Well, gee, if this is happening to the alligators, what’s happening to the humans?’ Most people don’t know women in a nearby low-income, African-American community are prematurely delivering babies. What does the state of Florida decide to do? Instead of dealing with the incinerator pumping dioxin into the air, they built a neonatal clinic!”
She says the widespread proliferation of PVCs in everything from shower curtains to baby bibs is particularly egregious because safer alternatives are available. Soft toys, for example, can be made with such plastics as ethylene vinyl acetate and polyolefins, which do not have the same adverse health effects, or with green plastic-like polymers derived from corn. “You can create a new industry that supports farmers,” she says. “So instead of a PVC-polluting plant that makes bottles, you have a bio-based factory that’s shooting out those same products.”
In 2007 Gibbs took aim at Target during its annual shareholders’ meeting in Cleveland because the company hadn’t committed to phasing out PVCs. “We took our 25-foot blow-up duck and told them ‘not to duck the issue,’ ” she says, chuckling. “We do have a lot of fun.” Target soon joined the roster of companies, including Kmart, Wal-Mart, Microsoft, Nike, Apple, and Johnson & Johnson, that have succumbed to her pressure. “The corporations are rolling over faster than we can create the hit list,” she says. “They understand the American public is very nervous about chemicals.”
Meanwhile, Gibbs has identified and nurtured a generation of community trailblazers. “I see people like I used to be—very shy—grow to be leaders of these campaigns,” she says. When she’s not strategizing in Washington, D.C., she’s crisscrossing the country to sit down with parents and citizens in school gymnasiums, diners, and union halls. Many of the people she meets are grappling with the same frustrations she felt 30 years ago—sick kids, baffled doctors, government apathy, and not knowing where to turn for help. “They’re scared and they’re frustrated,” she says. “But you get them in a room and say, ‘Okay, you want to fight back? Who are you fighting?’ Once that step is settled, you see in people’s eyes a sense of hope: I know where I need to go now.”
Gibbs plans with community advocates, and speaks alongside them at public meetings. And there’s plenty of tough love to go around. “I refuse to take the stage if the local community organization doesn’t have an action step that people in the audience can take,” she says. “There’s no point in getting them all riled up, then let them go home. They have to do something.”
Who’s next on her hit list? Gibbs divulges she has her eye on the toy companies making headlines lately for the lead in their products. In fact, her group is already announcing victories on the toy front: Toys “R” Us and Wal-Mart recently announced they will be removing toys containing PVCs from their shelves by the end of this year.
The Walt Disney Company is on alert, too. Gibbs recently staged a demonstration with activists dressed as some of the Seven Dwarfs—they were, it seems, especially Grumpy, Dopey, and Sleepy because America’s dream destination for children uses toxic cleaning products in its parks and hotels.
When this magazine asked Disney if it was responding to Gibbs’s campaign, a spokesperson replied that the company uses “a variety of products throughout Walt Disney World Resort that have been certified by Green Seal or other reputable organizations.” (Green Seal is an independent nonprofit that certifies environmental products and services.) “The health and safety of all our guests, cast members, and employees, along with the protection of air, water, and soil resources, are longstanding Disney values,” continued the spokesperson. “We have a team of professionals that regularly tests and evaluates new products and processes to ensure a safe, clean, hygienic environment for our guests.”
It’s a good start for the entertainment giant, says Gibbs. But she won’t be satisfied until Disney goes “100 percent green. New York, Massachusetts, and Illinois have passed laws saying that only green cleaning products can be used in their schools and other state institutions. We want Florida to do the same, and we want Disney to set the example.”
The verdict is still out as to whether she will convince Disney to go “all the way,” as she puts it. But one thing’s for sure: If anyone can cast a spell over the Magic Kingdom, it’s Lois Gibbs.
Paul Raeburn has written for Discover, Popular Science, The Washington Post, and The New York Times Magazine, among others.
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