You'll never guess...
Planet Waves Digital Media, copyright ©2000, all rights reserved.
By Eric Francis
It is the government report that would not die, and which has yet to be officially born. Its latest "preliminary draft edition" is still being held under wraps by the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). But the Clinton administration, after 14 years of federal stonewalling, botched coverups, conflicts of interest and manufactured controversy -- and nearly half-a-century of corporate efforts to hide the truth -- appears poised to admit what everyone seems to have always known. Dioxin, a toxin so potent that it killed all of the rats in one study at a concentration of just five parts-per-trillion in their food, causes cancer and other severe, adverse health effects in people.
In case you are inclined to think this puts dioxin in the category of, say, an artificial sweetener that you have to feed to rats by the kilo to see an effect, consider this. The EPA's report, due out in June, confirms, based on its earlier drafts, that dioxins are already found in our human bodies at about five parts-per-trillion or more, levels now understood to trigger numerous diseases with no added exposure. The levels that exist in the body are present because dioxins are found throughout the food supply, particularly in meat, poultry, fish, dairy and eggs, where they concentrate in fats. Dioxin exposure is cumulative, with each daily dose adding to what is already there, then working in concert with many other, similar toxins also moving in the food chain.
All of this has been known for years. But until now, there has always been a measure of "plausible deniability" by industry because, in the face of seemingly conflicting science, none of it was ever actually confirmed by the government.
So daunting is the prospect of these facts being given any more official credibility than they already have that a group of 20,000 New York State restaurant owners, represented by a prominent rubber and cigarette industry lobbyist named Jim Tozzi, has filed a federal lawsuit to block a related federal report that calls dioxin a known human carcinogen. The suit charges that, should this information receive the blessings of the federal government, people will be too terrified of dioxin to eat food. This, they contend, will hurt the restaurants' business.
In the macabre history of dioxin, such a move is typical, for it is a tale in the genre of political science fiction that has wended its way through the aftermath dozens of disasters and their resulting lawsuits, citizen movements and a haze of fraud and scientific chaos that have revealed that the environmental regulatory process is a kind of surreal farce.
Waste Products of Industry
Officially called 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-para-dioxin, or TCDD, dioxin and its hundreds of chemical cousins are born as waste by-products of a variety of chemical industry operations, all of which use chlorine. The tire business, paper, electrical, plastic, wood preserving and trash incineration industries are just a few. They are also formed in chemical and electrical accidents, such as the 1991 transformer explosions at the State University of New York at New Paltz, and were present in PCB oil that was dumped for 40 years into the Hudson River by General Electric. Yet many so-called "dioxin-like compounds," including unburned PCBs and a variety of pesticides, have been manufactured intentionally through most of the 20th century, and many are still in production in the US and abroad. In recent years, due to sloppy manufacturing and overuse of chlorinated products, dioxins have turned up in everything from pHisohex antibacterial soap to Lysol brand disinfectant, both of which are used in surgical facilities, in households, and even on children and their toys.
In addition to being carcinogenic, dioxin is the most potent known cancer promoter, weakening the body's immune defenses and allowing many other substances to act as carcinogens when they would not ordinarily do so. Many types of dioxins are found in human milk, and some of the highest doses received in life are transmitted from the mother to the infant during breast feeding.
Very small amounts of the substance cause serious problems. Last year in Belgium, for example, a mere 80 milligrams of dioxin, enough to fit in a small pill, accidentally disseminated through the food chain and contaminated many tons of food and livestock, all of which had to be destroyed after being distributed throughout Europe and the United States.
There is more evidence of how little has really changed in more than three decades of struggle over this issue. The first public dioxin crisis, which surfaced in 1969, involved Agent Orange, a chemical used to strip the leaves off of trees in Vietnam. Millions of Vietnamese people and US troops were exposed, many became sick, and the children of thousands experienced birth defects and childhood reproductive cancers. Agent Orange was composed of two components: 2,4,5-T, which was finally banned because it contained dioxin, and 2,4-D, which is still on the market despite the fact that one of every three samples of the product is known to be tainted with dioxin. 2,4-D is readily available today as a weed killer in many lawn fertilizers, with no warning on the package. Which brands are contaminated? Federal officials say it's a trade secret, and will not reveal the information to citizens.
Yet even if it knew these facts, the public could hardly be in a position to demand action. News reports over the past 10 years have alternately called dioxin the most toxic poison known to science (it's 11,000 times more toxic than cyanide when tested on guinea pigs), or something as harmless as sunbathing (according to The New York Times), or a substance that harms only animals but by the mercy of nature, is benign to humans (according to earlier, manipulated EPA assessments and many other sources). These contradictory facts served to create chaos even in the highest echelons of the scientific community. But the latest draft of the EPA's long study on dioxin, which has never been officially released to the public, could, potentially, settle all of that.
Paper Industry Pressure
Known over the years as the "EPA reassessment of dioxin's toxicity," the project dates back nearly a generation, to 1986, when it became public knowledge that dioxin is contained in paper pulp and mill discharges, which flow into rivers, oceans and hence marine life and the fish supply. Lawsuits were brought against Champion and other paper manufacturers, alleging that they were intentionally killing the people who ate fish downstream from their plants, most of them poor Native Americans. In response to this crisis, the paper industry pressured the federal government to reassess all known dioxin data, in hopes that it would turn out to be less toxic than it was shown to be in the past.
But as the latest facts came in, the opposite turned out to be true. Extensive research has shown that present background levels of dioxin currently found in the human body of average people -- accumulated from years of eating contaminated food -- are already at levels high enough to cause reproductive diseases, hormone disturbances and other effects that may lead to birth defects, cancer and a wide variety of other ills.
Over the years, portions or entire drafts of the several thousand page report have been released for review by EPA, but always with the words, "DRAFT -- DO NOT CITE OR QUOTE" printed on every page. Despite unimaginable pressure from industry to kill the project or to distort its findings, the reassessment miraculously survived the Reagan, Bush and Clinton administrations, which packed federal agencies with former corporate executives who were in the position of regulating the industries in which they had direct interests.
Yet the reassessment also survived:
A now carefully-documented paper industry whitewash of dioxin dangers initiated by Vernon Houk, then an assistant surgeon general, which set the stage for wide-scale denial of the dangers of dioxin in paper pulp and mill discharge by the press and industry;
A related public relations campaign of stunning proportions through the mid-1990s, with prominent page-one article series in both The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times, as well as in papers across the nation, presenting to the public the made-up story, originating with Houk and The New York Times reporter Keith Schneider, that "dioxin is less toxic than previously believed." This claim was finally exposed as false by Vicki Monks in a landmark June 1994 article in American Journalism Review;
The publication of three cancer mortality studies on Monsanto workers badly contaminated in a 1949 chemical disaster, which are now widely understood to be made-up. These manipulated studies showed that dioxin exposure does not cause cancer, and were sponsored and supported by Monsanto scientists. Published in leading journals such as the Journal of the American Medical Association, the studies created significant confusion throughout the reassessment process, impacting other EPA regulations of dioxin as well;
, one of the few journalists who was willing to report the truth about scientific fraud surrounding dioxin. The lawsuit succeeded only at terrifying the world media away from covering the issue;
® A libel lawsuit brought by a Monsanto scientist involved with those studies against Peter Montague
A well-documented campaign of harassment by the EPA against one of its scientists, Dr. Cate Jenkens, who was blowing the whistle on Monsanto's scientific fraud surrounding dioxin;
Fires in the homes of the two most effective citizen collectors of dioxin documents, Pat Costner of Greenpeace (author of We All Live Downstream), and Carol van Strum (author of A Bitter Fog), which destroyed their collections and, in van Strum's case, took the lives of her four children.
Yet the end, 14 years into the reassessment process and half a century after the discovery of dioxin, we are about to be told by the EPA reassessment the plainly obvious, that dioxin is carcinogenic.
"How ridiculous," commented van Strum last week. "And to think that they are still calling this report a 'draft', when they have been fully aware of this for decades. The problem here is that we have the federal government investigating dioxin when it has a clear conflict of interest because of the Agent Orange problem. It's been in a position where it cannot admit the obvious because this will be used against it in lawsuits."
Internal Monsanto Co. memo from the late 1960s acknowledging that the world is contaminated with its dioxin-tainted PCBs.
Industry's Early Knowledge Documented
Industry, as well, has been operating with full knowledge of the crisis for many years. In an internal Monsanto memo dated March 17, 1965, the company's then-medical director, Emmett Kelly -- warning his own company's scientists who would be handling a sample -- that Dow Chemical Co. feels that dioxin "is the most toxic compound they have ever experienced." Then, two weeks later he admits in another internal memo, "very conceivably, it can be a potent carcinogen."
This direct admission from a high level official, one of many discovered the Monsanto and Dow files through lawsuits against the companies, was made 16 years after a chemical disaster at Monsanto's Agent Orange factory at Nitro, West Virginia. The 1949 Nitro event marks the beginnings of the full understanding of the scope of the dioxin problem, as well as the genesis of the false science that has characterized the issue and forestalled effective regulations. Hundreds of Monsanto's workers were exposed when a 2,4,5-T reactor exploded, spewing the partially-brewed herbicide throughout the building and into the surrounding environment, along with extremely high levels of dioxin. Many of the workers died of cancer, though even the real number of cancer deaths is likely to be underestimated because it does not include people who died of dioxin-induced heart disease before their cancer could be diagnosed.
Kelly, Monsanto's medical director, had occasion to comment on dioxin toxicity seven years later after a similar accident occurred at a BASF (Badische Co.) factory in Germany. He said that photographs of the worst BASF cases showed symptoms similar to those in Monsanto workers -- "horrible skin eruptions with nearly blister-like welts and some ulcerations where infection ensued [I]n addition to skin manifestations, their men reported all the same symptoms as experienced in our workers, i.e., fatigue, vertigo, loss of libido, painful joints, etc."
Kelly said that after the initial cleanup of the BASF scene, rabbits were exposed in open wire cages to the former production area. The rabbits died one week later, and autopsies showed liver necrosis, or the presence of dead flesh on the organ. He wrote that a BASF scientist first considered that there might be a virus of some kind present, and placed new rabbits in the same cages, though without bringing the cages to the cleanup site. Those rabbits also died of liver necrosis within 1-2 weeks. There was no virus, just dioxin.
In a June 12, 1956 memo, Kelly draws a picture of a molecule almost identical to dioxin (dibenzofuran, the most potent dioxin-like compound), and writes, "This impurity can show up in the production of any chlorinated phenols and is probably responsible" for the symptoms associated with other chlorinated chemicals, such as PCBs, wood preservatives and others. Manufacture of these chemicals proceeded unchecked over the decades; PCBs, finally banned in 1978, were one of Monsanto's highest profit-makers, and the company fought a brutal war with regulators to keep them on the market before they were finally outlawed by Congress.
Meanwhile, exposed Nitro workers were tracked over the years by Monsanto scientist Raymond Suskind, a medical doctor, who first examined the victims at the time of the explosion. Then, between 1978 and 1979, Suskind analyzed the health effects and death rates among these workers, and his three studies were released between 1980 and 1984, credited to different authors, all of which concluded that dioxin exposure does not cause cancer. These studies, which were later found to contain manipulated data hiding the real number of cancer deaths, were released to the public in the midst of three major dioxin issues which were at the time dominating headlines: the Vietnam veterans lawsuits over Agent Orange, the Love Canal disaster near Niagara Falls, NY, and the contamination and evacuation of Times Beach, Mo., which was purchased in its entirety and demolished by the federal government after dioxin waste was sprayed on the roads and corrals to keep dust down.
Thus, with dioxin raging in the news, the data seemed to prove neither Monsanto nor any other chemical maker had culpability. According to EPA documents, the studies were relied upon for creating federal dioxin regulations, including the denial of benefits to Vietnam veterans.
One of the reports on Monsanto workers, called the "Zack-Gaffey study" after the scientists whose names appeared on it, was used by Monsanto to support a direct 1980 claim that exposure to its Agent Orange product does not cause cancer.
"Monsanto Company today reported that no apparent relationship exists between TCDD, the toxic dioxin contaminant in 'Agent Orange', and the cause of death of 58 employees exposed in the 1949 Nitro incident, the company said in a statement," in the wording of its own news release. The study, credited to a scientist not publicly known to work for Monsanto -- Dr. William Gaffey -- was published as his independent work in the journal Environmental Science Research. The other two studies also received high-credibility publication, one of which appeared in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
Had the raw data been reported and interpreted correctly, according to independent scientists who have reviewed it more recently, there would have been a clear demonstration that the exposed Monsanto workers had higher-than-normal rates of cancer. And since the studies looked only at the officially-reported cause of death and did not determine the presence of cancer by autopsy, it is likely that many cancer cases were missed.
From this point forward, industry went on the offensive. With these studies firmly in the public record, it became impossible ever to state unequivocally that dioxin was a known human carcinogen. Combined with an overall lack of available data -- in part caused by the fact that dioxin cancers develop over many years, and that there are not many human populations with specific, measurable exposures to study -- industry could always either raise a cloud of confusion, or fall back on the idea that animal data, though abundant in dioxin's case, is not a valid indicator of cancer in humans. Indeed, dioxin has caused cancer in every animal it's ever been tested on.
But today, with the EPA poised to admit the obvious, many people and agencies who could hide in the shadows of uncertainty will have to face a simple fact.
And yet fifty years after the Nitro accident, the shadow of the manipulated studies on Monsanto workers hangs over the issue. A spokesman for Jim Tozzi, the lobbyist representing 20,000 New York restaurants suing the federal government to block the release of a federal report, used the confusion over human cancer data this week to justify the restaurants' lawsuit.
"The basis of the suit is simply that the agency proposed to upgrade dioxin in violation of its own definition or criteria for the 'known' [human carcinogen] category. It has previously been classified as a 'reasonably anticipated [human] carcinogen'. And the odd thing is there is no new human data."++
Eric Francishas covered dioxins and related issues for nine years. His work has appeared in Sierra, The Village Voice, The Las Vegas Sun, St Louis Journalism Review, Lies Of Our Times and in other periodicals.