Center for Health, Environment and Justice
Everyone's Backyard

Science Feature

Dioxin: The Real Issue Is Profit, Not Science

The EPA’s long awaited “reassessment” of the health effects of dioxin was finally released this September [1994].  The scientific evidence indicates that dioxin is worse than previously reported.  The EPA study confirms what grassroots activists have feared for years:  dioxin is a deadly chemical that is destroying the health of our people.  

Not only does dioxin exposure lead to cancer but dioxin levels 100 times lower than levels associated with developing cancer are linked to severe reproductive and developmental effects.  The report also confirms that dioxin exposure can damage the immune system leading to increased susceptibility to infectious diseases and can disrupt the function of regulatory hormones.  
There are many important findings in this report including:
1.    The health problems caused by dioxin other than cancer may have more impact on public health than the cancer causing effects of dioxin;

2.    Dioxin accumulates in biological tissues.  The average level of dioxin in our bodies is just below levels that cause some adverse health effects.  Small amounts of additional exposure to dioxin or other chemicals that act similarly may push some people over the amount needed to cause health problems.  For others who have above average levels, health problems already exist;

3.    The major route of human exposure is through ingestion of a wide variety of common foods containing small amounts of dioxin (see figure).  This has resulted in widespread low-level exposure of the general population;

4.    Some health effects of dioxin (adverse impacts on human metabolism and developmental and/or reproductive biology such as reduced testosterone levels which affects sterility and
reduced glucose tolerance which increases the risk of diabetes) were found to occur “at or near levels to which people in the general population are exposed;” and

5.    The principal sources of dioxin in the environment are combustion and incineration, chemical manufacturing/processing, industrial/municipal processes and “reservoir” sources (dioxin contaminated soils and sediments).

 The report is full of new information on dioxin including information on how dioxin and dioxin-like chemicals (PCBs, furans) damage the body.  Scientists have identified a series of steps that are necessary for most if not all of the observed effects of dioxin and related compounds.  Once dioxin is in the body, the molecules of dioxin (the more dioxin you are exposed to the more dioxin molecules are present in the body) “attach” to specific receptor “sites” in cell tissue much like a ship pulling into a loading dock at a pier.  This site is normally used by hormones and enzymes to regulate certain activities in the body.  When dioxins and dioxin-like chemicals occupy this site instead of hormones and enzymes, select normal cell functions cannot be carried out.  Hormone activity, developmental/ reproductive and immune functions are especially vulnerable to disruption of receptor site activity.
One of the most striking findings of the report is the significance of what past dioxin exposures may mean for public health.  The report identifies levels of dioxin in the human body referred to as the “body burden.”  According to EPA, some adverse effects of dioxins occur at levels slightly above average body burden levels currently found in the population and that “as body burdens increase within and above this range, the probability and severity as well as the spectrum of human non-cancer effects most likely will increase.”

This means that, as a society, we have been accumulating dioxin and dioxin-like chemicals in our body.  We are very close to “full” when it comes to the amount of dioxin that is known or expected to cause adverse health effects.  It will only take a small additional exposure to “push” us over the edge and trigger adverse health effects.  For most people, any exposure to dioxin, no matter how small, may lead to some adverse health effects.  In other words, no amount of additional exposure to dioxin is safe.  

It is unclear from the EPA report how additional exposures to dioxins or other chemicals such as pesticides will impact public health.  EPA admits that it is impossible to state exactly how or at what levels people will respond, but the “margin of exposure (MOE) between background levels and levels where effects are detectable in considerably smaller than previously estimated.”

 This definitive study took three years to complete and involved more than 100 scientists.  It’s 2,400 pages in length and cost taxpayers millions of dollars.  One would think that this scientific opus would give EPA the evidence needed to act on the undeniable health risks that dioxin poses.  Instead, EPA made it clear that “existing EPA efforts and programs will not be changed on the basis of this draft reassessment.”  EPA will hold a 120-day public comment period on the report which then will be reviewed by EPA’s Scientific Advisory Board.  The final report is not expected out until late 1995.  

Industry’s Dioxin Strategy

EPA’s inaction conveniently fits in with a strategy crafted by companies who profit from products whose manufacture produce dioxin.  Chemical companies, plastics (PVC) producers, makers of rubber, dyes and pesticides; pulp and paper mills that use chlorine bleaches; and incinerator plants all produce dioxin.  These industries stand to lose big if EPA clamps down on dioxin.  

For years, these companies have orchestrated a political and scientific campaign to confuse the public and bring bureaucratic action to a stalemate.  So far, there has been little industry comment on the EPA report.  Is this part of their strategy as well?  It seems they have decided that no news is good news and that any discussion of the report will reflect badly on them.  

Why this silence?  Because industry has EPA right where they want them.  EPA is saying that 95% of dioxin emissions come from combustion sources, mostly medical and garbage incinerators, and that they know little about industrial sources of dioxin.  The EPA does not mention companies like Dow or Monsanto or other industrial producers of dioxin.  It’s like they don’t exist to EPA.  And once again EPA is leaning towards end-of-pipeline controls to regulate emissions.  This is fine with industry so long as they can continue to produce and use dioxin-related chemicals.

 The special interest and corporate attack on the EPA reassessment will come, but not until the attention generated by this report has faded from the minds of the media and public.  Unless citizens take action, the dioxin debate will go on, not because there are scientific issues that are unclear or because questions remain unanswered but because there is significant financial (corporate) investment in the production or use of dioxin-related chemicals.  

Profits vs Health

Some companies stand to lose billions if dioxin is regulated as the danger that it is.  A report done in 1993 for the Chlorine Institute estimated that a chlorine phaseout would cost $102 billion annually plus $67 billion in capital investment. Chlorine replacement in pharmaceuticals would cost $53.6 billion.  Corporations would also face billions in lawsuits for liability for health and environmental damage caused by dioxin exposures. They stand to save millions if they can settle pending lawsuits before the EPA reassessment is finalized.

While the EPA study was headline news across the country, it was not news to those who have been exposed to dioxin and denied environmental justice: mothers who had miscarriages in Alsea, Oregon; residents living around the Hoffmann-LaRoche chemical plant in Seveso, Italy; residents of Love Canal, Times Beach, MO, and Jacksonville, AR; Vietnam veterans exposed to Agent Orange; residents living near pulp and paper mills; people who live downwind from the Columbus, OH garbage incinerator that puts out the highest dioxin emissions in the country and from thousands of other incinerators around the country; and workers in the pharmaceutical, pesticide, and chemical manufacturing industries.

Where do we go from here?

The toxic legacy of dioxin was retold at the 2nd Citizens  Conference on Dioxin held in St. Louis, MO in July.  The conference, funded in part by CHEJ’s Mini-Grant program, revealed the latest scientific evidence on dioxin and perhaps more importantly told the human side of what dioxin exposures are doing to people around the world.  The EPA report confirms and verifies this human side of the dioxin story.  

One of the conference keynote speakers was CHEJ’s Executive Director Lois Gibbs.  She urged grassroots leaders to organize “truth squads” to combat the industry efforts to confuse the issues and dismiss the dangers of dioxin.  Activists at the conference came up with two demands as part of a resolution they passed which reaffirmed goals set at CHEJ’s last Grassroots Convention:  

1.    An immediate halt to the incineration of municipal, hazardous, medical, military and radioactive waste, and any such wastes incinerated in cement and/or aggregate kilns, or other devices;  and
2.    An immediate commencement of a phaseout of the industrial production and use of chlorinated organic compounds (including plastic, PVC).

Another strategy is to target EPA.  During the second week in December, EPA is holding a series of public meetings on the dioxin study in San Francisco, Chicago, Dallas, Washington, DC and the New York City area.  In the spring, EPA will hold a second set of meetings called “Dioxin Policy Workshops.”  These meetings will be designed to determine what changes, if any, are needed in EPA’s existing regulatory programs.  

CHEJ is planning to coordinate activities around these meetings.  Both sets of meetings give us the opportunity to have our voices heard on the dangers of dioxin.  Together we can create the political will to win, to shut down incinerators and stop dioxin emissions.  Together we can combat industry’s media spin doctors, create public awareness about the dangers of dioxin and change the way dioxin is regulated.  As soon as EPA announces dates for these meetings we will let you know.  Please contact CHEJ if you want to be part of these activities.

Originally published in Everyone's Backyard, Vol. 12, No. 4 (Fall 1994)

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For additional articles like this one, go to the Tittabawasse River Watch web site for complete coverage of the Tittabawassee River Dow Chemical dioxin contamination saga.. The source organization's web site link is listed above. The Newspaper / Media page of our site contains an extensive archive of media articles dating back to January 2002. The Newspaper / Media page may be accessed by scrolling down to the bottom of the CONTENTS section and clicking on the Newspaper/Media link.