In the spring of 1978, a 27-year-old housewife Lois Marie Gibbs discovered that her child was attending an elementary school built next to a 20,000 ton toxic-chemical dump in Niagara Falls, New York. Desperate to do something about it, she organized her neighbors into the Love Canal Homeowners Association. Opposing the group’s efforts, Occidental Petroleum, as well as local, state and federal government officials, all insisted that the leaking toxic chemicals were not the cause of the health problems experienced by residents. The seepage included dioxin, the most toxic chemical known to humans. Members of the Love Canal Homeowners Association were convinced that this toxic exposure was causing the high rates of birth defects, miscarriages, cancers and other maladies experienced by community members.
In October 1980, President Jimmy Carter delivered an Emergency Declaration, which moved 833 families from this dangerous area and signified victory for the grassroots community.
Once families were relocated from Love Canal, Lois’s life was changed forever. During the crisis, she received numerous calls from people across the country who were experiencing similar problems. This revealed to her that the problem of toxic waste went far beyond her own backyard. She became determined to support other grassroots efforts by sharing her experiences and newfound expertise.
In 1981, now a single parent with two children and $10,000, Lois left Niagara Falls for the Washington, D.C. area. There, she established a national organization – now known as CHEJ – to help families living near other Love Canal-like sites. Lois knew she was no longer the sheltered housewife of her past; she had become a sophisticated advocate of human rights and justice.
Since 1981, CHEJ has assisted over 15,000 grassroots groups with organizing, technical support, and vital information nationwide. Today, Lois speaks with communities across the United States and internationally about toxic chemicals and children’s unique vulnerability to environmental exposures.
Lois has been recognized extensively for her critical role in the grassroots environmental health movement. She has spoken at numerous conferences and has been featured in hundreds of newspaper articles, magazines and textbooks. Lois has appeared on many television and radio shows including 60 Minutes, 20/20, Oprah Winfrey, Good Morning America, The Morning Show and the Today Show. CBS produced a two- hour primetime movie about Lois’s life entitled “Lois Gibbs: The Love Canal Story,” starring Marsha Mason.
The many awards she has received include the 1990 Goldman Environmental Prize, Outside Magazine’s “Top Ten Who Made A Difference Honor Roll” in 1991, the 1998 Heinz Award, and the 1999 John Gardner Leadership Award from the Independent Sector. In 2003, Lois was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. She received honorary Ph.D. degrees from the State University of New York (SUNY), Cortland College and Haverford College in May 2006; Green Mountain College in 2009; and Medaille College in 2010. She also sits on numerous boards and advisory committees. She currently lives in Virginia with her husband.