Hysteria, Stress, and Familial Ties

Mass Hysteria 

As the thousands of Love Canal residents were increasingly reporting illnesses, many onlookers suspected that the residents were paranoid and imagined their illnesses. Not only were people’s physical health at risk but so was their mental health. Data from early research indicated that there were little to no health risks. However, the information was monitored by the government, which caused many “residents [to] think that the government is trying to adjust the figures and minimize the risk” (Holden, 1980). There was little to no trust among the people and their government. The residents of Love Canal urged for accurate reports that were free from government manipulation. Once thereports were released, the Emergency Declaration area was officially considered uninhabitable. The members of the Love Canal Homeowners Association were able to successfully convince the Federal government to purchase their homes in order for them to relocate. The residents who remained and lived in the adjacent neighborhoods were tremendously stressed. Both the deep abiding mistrust and government buyout caused this wave of stress and major panic. Phyllis Whitenight lived one block away from the contamination site and she is one of “six women in her street who have had mastectomies because of breast cancer” (Trost, 1980). She further expresses how [t]three houses away live a man with bladder cancer and three houses past that a man with throat cancer.” There was no avoiding the contamination.  She goes on to share about a 7-year old boy who lived down her street who” went into convulsions two summers ago and died of kidney failure.” He frequently” played in the creek behind his house where traces of dioxin… were later found” (Trost, 1980). The New York State Department of Health was aware of the presence and the effects of such toxins and dioxins, but they did not inform or warn the residents. The residents of Love Canal were told they were safe, yet there were people getting cancer and children dying left and right. The people of Love Canal were not paranoid or being hysterical– they were being lied to. 

The residents of Love Canal were perceived to be dramatic and paranoid because there were no definitive studies produced yet to yield conclusive results. In retrospect, it is undeniable that the 21,800 tons of chemicals negatively impacted the health of the community. In fact, the residents of Love Canal exhibit the same symptoms and health risks as “Vietnam veterans who believed their exposure to the dioxin-containing herbicide Agent has led to cancer, birth defects, and a variety of other disorders” (Holden, 1980). The people of Love Canal were suffering from real illness, yet they were deemed hysterical and paranoid, especially since women were reporting more health issues than men. 

Stress levels Increase 

The stress levels of the residents of Love Canal became pervasive and even spurred psychological distress. The people of Love Canal felt betrayed by their government and placed in harm’s way. The  Niagra Falls Community Mental Health Center “deployed three outreach workers full-time in Love canal” to provide workshops on “coping with stress” (Holden, 1980). However, there was horrible turnout. The residents of Love Canal were blue-collar workers who could not miss work to attend a workshop about stress. Also, the stigma around mental health at the time kept people close-minded about seeking help. Even though the city offered resources to assist those in need, it was ineffective.

Family Separation

Not only were residents suffering physical and mental health effects from the Love Canal tragedy, but many families did not remain a unit. As Lois Gibbs was spearheading the Love Canal Homeowners Association, she also was aware of the effects the chemicals had on the families. Prior to the 1978 Federal government buyout, “40% of couples have separated or divorced” (Holden, 1980). She explained how a typical family situation would be that the “wife wants to leave but the husband says no because he has invested his life in the home and his work” (Holden, 1980). The wife insists on leaving and takes the kids with her for thor own safety. Many families separated and even divorced due to their inability to simply leave their home/ investment to settle elsewhere.