A new AMERICAN EXPERIENCE film captures the power of everyday people to change the course of their own lives — and history. Poisoned Ground: The Tragedy at Love Canal tells the dramatic story of the ordinary women who fought against overwhelming odds for the health and safety of their families. In the late 1970s, residents of Love Canal, a working-class neighborhood in Niagara Falls, N.Y., discovered that their homes, schools, and playgrounds were built on top of a former chemical waste dump, which was now leaking poison and wreaking havoc on their health. Disposed containers contained carcinogenic chemicals such as dioxin and chlorinated hydrocarbons, which are byproducts from the manufacturing of dyes, perfumes, and solvents.

Through interviews with many of the housewives turned activists, the film shows how they challenged those in power, forced America to reckon with the human cost of unregulated industry, and created a grassroots movement that galvanized the landmark Superfund Bill.

“It was primal — these women were really scared, and they were protecting their families,” said Jamila Ephron, the film’s writer, producer, and director. “They were motivated by fear and the real sense that they were trapped in a death zone that was going to explode and get worse at any moment.”

The film also reminds viewers that environmental disasters are not a thing of the past, she said. Today more than 20 million people live within a mile of a Superfund site, and every year there are more disasters, like last year’s fiery East Palestine, Ohio, train derailment that sent toxic smoke into the air, causing thousands of evacuations. 

Many of the women from Love Canal are still alive to tell their stories. That made the project especially meaningful for Ephron, whose last film for AMERICAN EXPERIENCE was The Blinding of Isaac Woodard, which details how a horrific incident of racial violence became a catalyst for the civil rights movement. “Everybody who was there when those events unfolded had passed away,” said Ephron. “We had to tell history at a remove. What was so special about Poisoned Ground is there was no remove at all between the news footage we had and the living witnesses. It has an immediacy that you don't often get in historical documentary.”

The film also reveals the largely untold story of residents, mostly Black, of the nearby Griffin Manor Housing Projects, whose plight and complaints received far less attention than the White homeowners’. “It was a challenge to find people to help tell that story,” said Ephron. “A lot of people had passed away and others didn’t want to talk about it. I think there was distrust because the story hasn’t been told to their satisfaction.” 

Poisoned Ground, which premiered on April 22, Earth Day, is not a simple story of a bad corporation that dumped chemicals in the ground. “We're all doing a sort of a difficult dance — there is a demand for the products that create these chemical wastes,” said Ephron. “And people need these manufacturing jobs. I think we all have to own that it's our appetites for products and conveniences that can lead to things like this.” 

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