Lesson Plan

Love Canal and the Environmental Protection Agency


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.


  • How toxic waste buried under the neighborhood of Love Canal has affected the health and well-being of the community’s residents.
  • How the efforts of Love Canal’s residents to publicize their plight affected America’s cultural and political awareness of the hazards posed by toxic waste.
  • How the publicity surrounding Love Canal triggered the creation of the EPA’s “Superfund” program.
  • Social Studies
  • Environment
  • Science
  • U.S. History
  • AP Environmental Science
  • Jimmy Carter
  • The Environment and Natural Resources
  • 1940s America
  • 1950s America
  • 1960s America
  • 1970s America
  • The Postwar Era (1945-1980)
  • The Modern Era (1980-Present)
For Teachers

Introducing the Lesson

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.

Essential Questions

  • How did residents of Love Canal come to be aware that they were living under toxic waste? How was the toxic waste affecting their health and homes?
  • How did the residents of Love Canal convince President Carter to provide federal assistance for evacuation and relocation?
  • What is the “Superfund” program?
  • What remediation (clean-up) efforts have been undertaken at Love Canal? What is the status of the community now?
  • What direct linkage has been definitively established between the toxic waste at Love Canal and serious dangers to human health?

Lesson Procedure

  • The EPA has spent hundreds of millions of dollars in remediation efforts, and some people argue that Love Canal is one of the safest places to live in America. Would you buy a home there today? Would you feel safe living there?
  • What indications are there that the residents of Love Canal may have exceeded their toleration of certain pollutants, and are experiencing physiological stress and other health consequences?
  • In discussing the linkage between toxic waste and the health of Love Canal’s residents, one expert in the video notes: “These are intrinsically difficult problems to evaluate scientifically.” Why do you think it’s so difficult for scientists to prove this kind of linkage? What does this teach us about the challenges of tracing effects of human pollution upon the organisms within ecosystems?
  • The video focuses on the effects that toxic waste has had on humans. How do you think this waste might be affecting the rest of the ecosystem around Love Canal?

Additional Resources

Transcript for "Toxic Waste in the Neighborhood: The Love Canal Disaster"Retro Report 
“Love Canal and its Mixed Legacy”Retro Report/The New York Times 

Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., visually, quantitatively, as well as in words) in order to address a question or solve a problem.

Analyze a complex set of ideas or sequences of events and explain how specific individuals, ideas, or events interact or develop over the course of a text.

Evaluate the consequences of human-made and natural catastrophes on global trade, politics, and human migration.

Skill 1.A: Describe environmental concepts and processes.

Big Idea: Sustainability (STB)

Questions? Tips? Concerns? Reach out to our Director of Education, David Olson: dolson@retroreport.com