Twenty years ago this spring, Lois Marie Gibbs suspected that her son's chronic health problems might be tied to a chemical dump next to the 99th Street School where he was a kindergartner.
Thus began the story of Love Canal, the Niagara Falls neighborhood in western New York that became synonymous with toxic waste. By the time it was over, 239 homes had been demolished, an additional 564 evacuated - and Ms. Gibbs had become a nationally known community organizer and activist fighting industrial pollution around the country, which she still is.
Since then, a series of federal laws have reduced the possibility of future Love Canals. And through government prodding - as well as voluntary initiatives - the chemical industry has significantly cut the amount of toxic materials released into the environment.
That trend continued last week when the Clinton administration and the Chemical Manufacturers Association both acted to increase the pace of chemical testing. Environmentalists, regulators, and the industry all agree that more and better information is needed - to allay unwarranted fears as well as to stop harmful practices.
"Our industry has a responsibility to develop strong scientific data if we expect government to improve the quality of its decision-making," said Fred Webber, president of the Chemical Manufacturers Association (CMA), which represents companies producing 90 percent of all chemicals in the United States.
At the same time the CMA was announcing its plan to quadruple the number of new chemicals it tests each year, Vice President Al Gore was brandishing the stick of government regulation if the industry did not voluntarily do so.
"Communities have a right to know not just the name of chemicals released, but also their impact on people - especially children," Mr. Gore said.
A major impetus behind such efforts has been increased public scrutiny - focused on government agencies as well as on the chemical industry. As a result, citizens now have more of the information they need to pressure the powers that be on behalf of their communities.
Every year, the Environmental Protection Agency issues a Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) documenting the amounts of more than 600 chemicals that some 31,000 industrial facilities release into the environment.
Much of this information is technical and hard to decipher by the average citizen. But that is rapidly changing.
Last summer, Pennsylvania began posting environmental inspection results on the Internet, while Texas A&M now posts TRI data for 1,200 manufacturers in Texas. The EPA also provides such data online, and last week the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) fired up its new website where anybody with access to the Internet can mouse-click to maps, charts, and other federal government data on potential chemical dangers in small communities as well as in large, industrial cities. The EDF site covers every state in the country.
"This is a first glimpse of what public right-to-know will be like in the 21st century," says EDF executive director Fred Krupp. "It's a giant step toward making the facts about local pollution as easy to get as a weather report."
The light of public disclosure has begun to bring about change.
Over the past decade, the chemical industry's Responsible Care Program has seen the release of toxic chemicals into the environment cut by more than half while production increased by some 20 percent.
Still, there is acknowledgment that much remains to be done before the public knows all it needs to in order to make sure businesses and government agencies continue to reduce the threat of chemical pollution. Beyond the data on releases, experts say, the impact of those releases needs closer scrutiny.
"We are clearly in a state of toxic ignorance," Kenneth Olden, director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, told a congressional hearing last month. "Little is known about which compounds ... people are actually exposed to."
Gibbs, who now heads the Center for Health, Environment, and Justice in Falls Church, Va., says some improvements have been made since she fought her battle.
"Over the past 20 years, the US has come a long way in identifying buried wastes, cleaning up sites, reducing some air and water pollution, and cutting back on both industrial and household wastes," she says.
"We cleaned up what we can see - the obvious, the ugly," Gibbs writes in a recent essay for the Orion Society, an environmental education organization. "The challenge for the next decade will be to eliminate the poisons we can't see."
Toxic Waste Sites on the Internet
The new Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) site can be used to access maps, charts, and other federal government data on potential chemical dangers in small communities as well as in large, industrial cities across the US.
* www.epa.gov/opptintr/ tri/whatis.htm
The US Enviromental Protection Agency site providing its Toxics Release Inventory.
Information from the Center for Health, Environment and Justice.