DEFENDERS OF DIOXIN The Corporate Campaign to Rehabilitate Dioxin By David Lapp IN THE FACE OF MOUNTING public concern over toxic chemical pollution, several industries and their allies in government have launched a full-scale campaign to reverse the long-held belief that dioxin is the most toxic synthetic chemical known to science. Whether the defenders of dioxin succeed has significant implications. If the government, the courts and the public accept what many scientists believe the evidence has already demonstrated--that dioxin damages the immune system, is among the most potent human carcinogens and causes a multitude of other adverse health effects--the federal government and the chlorine, waste incineration and pulp and paper industries stand to lose billions of dollars through lawsuits and lost contracts.
So far the industry crusade has succeeded in persuading the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to conduct a rare reassessment of the risks associated with a chemical. Although the EPA's reassessment is not likely to significantly alter dioxin regulations, industry and government are positioned to capitalize from promoting the view that dioxin is no longer as dangerous as previously thought.
The corporate strategy represents a "last-ditch effort to win litigation that's currently pending in the court system," says Dr. Cate Jenkins of the EPA's regulatory development branch. "There is a two-year wait where they can win several suits" by propagating the view that the risks of dioxin are low. While high-level government officials are trumpeting the industry view, other government officials and environmentalists assert that existing scientific evidence unambiguously proves dioxin's severe dangers. "For years, the EPA and the industry have trivialized the significance of the animal carcinogenicity data, which shows that dioxin is the most carcinogenic compound known to science," says Pat Costner, a dioxin expert at Greenpeace. "These data come from a wide range of sources and remain totally unchallenged and unchallengeable."
Many of the officials and environmentalists who hold this view argue that the risks associated with dioxin exposure compel a radical departure from many of today's manufacturing and waste disposal processes. Dioxin--the name of a group of 75 chemicals--is a product of waste incineration and most chemical processes involving organochlorines, particularly paper bleaching. It is bio- accumulative, meaning that concentrations are greater higher in the food chain.
Every person in the United States is believed to carry traces of dioxin in his or her blood, and data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control indicate that the average U.S. citizen consumes 85 times the EPA's permissible dose. Another 1991 study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health found that workers exposed to high levels of dioxin suffered cancer at a rate 46 percent higher than the general population. Even minute doses of the chemical can be lethal, as has been shown in a variety of animals; for example, dioxin is fatal in laboratory hamsters at one 64-thousandth the fatal dose of sodium cyanide.
Nevertheless, over the past year, business groups and industry scientists have issued statements and reports downplaying dioxin's dangers. On September 12, for example, the National Chamber Foundation, a group affiliated with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, issued a report declaring that "new studies reveal that cancer risks from exposure to dioxin are greatly exaggerated." The statement announcing the report asserted that dioxin "poses no threat to humans, at either normal exposure levels or elevated exposure levels caused by occupational practices or industrial accidents."
A high-ranking public health official is one of the key proponents of this industry message. Dr. Vernon Houk, director of the Center for Environmental Health and Injury Control at the CDC, recently announced that he believes dioxin is less dangerous and carcinogenic than he had previously thought. Ten years ago, Houk says, he prodded the federal government to order the evacuation of 2,239 residents from Times Beach, Missouri after dioxin-contaminated oil was sprayed on streets and parking lots to control dust; horses, dogs, cats, chickens and birds subsequently died. In an April speech given at a conference sponsored by Syntex Corp., a company facing hundreds of dioxin lawsuits filed by former Times Beach residents, Houk maintained that he had made a mistake in supporting the evacuation.
Houk has admitted at a Congressional hearing that his proposals to relax regulatory standards for dioxin were taken practically verbatim from paper industry documents. "I think the consensus is that low-dose exposure to dioxin causes very little in the way of human health effects," Houk told Multinational Monitor. "If it is a carcinogen, it's a relatively weak one, only at extremely high doses." At a July 1990 hearing of the House Subcommittee on Human Resources and Intergovernmental Relations, Representative Ted Weiss, D-New York, strongly criticized Houk's position on dioxin. Noting that Houk's dioxin claims "run counter to the stated ... policy position of the three federal agencies that have taken a position on dioxin, that is, EPA, FDA [the Food and Drug Administration] and CDC itself," Weiss said he found Houk's efforts "distressing" and "nothing short of arrogan[t]."
Weiss and others' criticisms notwithstanding, the industry view has received prominent coverage in the major media, especially the New York Times. In August, the New York Times printed two front-page articles claiming that dioxin is no longer considered "toxic enemy No. 1" and citing Houk as a key source. "Exposure to the chemical, once thought to be much more hazardous than chain smoking, is now considered by some experts to be no more risky than spending a week sunbathing," one of the articles stated. The other article presented a congenial account of Houk's personal life and his new beliefs about dioxin. In a follow-up editorial, the New York Times asserted that the federal government is "sensibly considering new evidence that could lead to relaxation of the current strict and costly standards [for dioxin]."
The New York Times' enthusiasm for eliminating "strict and costly" dioxin standards may be related to its direct corporate interests, speculates Village Voice columnist James Ledbetter. He suggests that the New York Times' position "can be traced to the fact that the New York Times Company has an 80 percent interest in a Maine paper mill and a 49 percent interest in three Canadian paper mills. Indeed, on August 12, just four days before [the Times'] editorial ran, two groups of Canadian Indians filed suit against Kimberly-Clark and the Times Company for $1.3 billion (Canadian), charging that one of the mills has polluted three rivers with dioxin and other toxins. This interest, need I point out, was not disclosed in the editorial." New or no information?
Despite the corporate connections and affiliations of the main propagators of the new interpretation of dioxin's risks, EPA Administrator William K. Reilly has apparently succumbed to the industry view. "I don't want to prejudge the issue, but we are seeing new information on dioxin that suggests a lower risk assessment for dioxin should be applied," Reilly told the New York Times, acknowledging there is little federal precedent for reevaluating the toxicity of a chemical. Other EPA officials dispute Reilly's prediction of a lower risk assessment for dioxin. Linda S. Birnbaum, director of the EPA's Environmental Toxicology Division, which has overall responsibility for the agency's dioxin reassessment, has said that she believes that, after all the evidence is evaluated, the regulatory figures for dioxin will not change significantly.
The EPA's Jenkins charges that Reilly is unfamiliar with dioxin science and is making "very biased and one-sided" statements. Jenkins says that the "new information" Reilly says justifies a reassessment of dioxin came from a conference sponsored last November by The Chlorine Institute, a trade group whose members include Dow Chemical, Du Pont, Georgia-Pacific, International Paper, PPG Industries and the Exxon Chemical Co.
A public relations firm hired by The Chlorine Institute publicized an alleged consensus that conference participants reached on the relative safety of dioxin. But scientists not affiliated with industry who attended the conference dispute this conclusion. Stating that she was "astounded" by the PR firm's message, Dr. Ellen Silbergeld, a dioxin expert at the University of Maryland, wrote a protest letter to the conference director. "The press releases and statements imply that a major focus of the conference was a discussion of the regulatory risk assessments that have been applied to dioxins; this was not the focus of the meeting," she writes. "I did not expect to be manipulated by industry and government spokespeople (who are not dioxin researchers, incidentally) to be made into a supporter of their political views on dioxin and risk assessment."
The Chlorine Institute now disavows the efforts of its public relations firm. According to Joe Walker, a spokesperson of the Institute, a letter describing the conference's findings and circulated to the media "inadvertently excluded text changes recommended by the [conference] director, rendering it inaccurate in its depiction of the conference outcome." Walker states that as soon as the Institute "realized the mistake, distribution of the letter ceased."
Public health defenders Industry's dioxin claims are discredited by affidavits--ignored almost entirely by the media--submitted in September 1991 by Admiral Elmo Zumwalt Jr. and Dr. Jenkins in support of the second class-action lawsuit filed by Vietnam veterans against the chemical manufacturers of Agent Orange [see "The Agent Orange Trials," Multinational Monitor, July/August 1991]. The affidavits declare that the accumulation of scientific evidence proves that Vietnam veterans' wide-ranging health effects are linked to the dioxin-contaminated chemical defoliant Agent Orange. In her 132-page affidavit, a comprehensive evaluation of the dioxin studies that had been conducted through August 1991, Jenkins maintains that the most recent and complete studies show a "significant association of dioxin with health and reproductive effects suffered by Vietnam veterans."
These effects include elevated cancer rates as well as a number of neurological, nervous and reproductive system disorders. Jenkins supports her argument, in part, by explaining that Agent Orange- exposed veterans share many of the same health effects as farmers, forestry workers and chemical plant workers who have been exposed to dioxin. The similarities increase the "probability that the common causal factor for the multiple injuries was dioxin rather than two or more coincidental factors." In his affidavit, Admiral Zumwalt, who ordered the spraying of Agent Orange while he commanded the U.S. Naval Forces in Vietnam from 1968 to 1970, criticizes dioxin studies conducted by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). He charges that data for the CDC's Agent Orange studies were "manipulated by CDC in an effort to deny the link between Agent Orange exposure and health effects." Zumwalt further alleges that the protocol for the study was in fact a "purposeful effort to sabotage any chance of meaningful Agent Orange exposure analysis." He states that new evidence has been uncovered showing that "political interference" obstructed the study. Zumwalt's sworn statement also targets Houk, whose work at the CDC Zumwalt examined when working as a special assistant on Agent Orange to the Secretary of Veterans Affairs.
"It is my conclusion that Dr. Vernon Houk has made it his mission to manipulate scientific data and procedures so as to prevent the true facts about dioxin from being determined," Zumwalt charges. Referring to magazine and newspaper articles that have cited Houk's views on dioxin, Zumwalt alleges that Houk is involved "in an apparent public relations campaign, falsely claiming that previous assessments of the harmful effects of dioxin have been overestimated."
Zumwalt points out that "Dr. Houk's politically motivated efforts to cover up the true effects of dioxin, and manipulate public perception, coincide with the similar, economically motivated, efforts of chemical companies that produce dioxin." He concludes that Houk's Agent Orange work at the CDC is "thoroughly discredited." Libel or fraudulent misconduct? At least one of those who have sought to counter business' dioxin campaign has found himself the target of industry intimidation efforts.
Dr. Peter Montague, the editor of a newsletter called Rachel's Hazardous Waste News and the author of numerous articles on the controversial chemical, asserts that he is a victim of corporate efforts to silence critics of dioxin. Montague was sued for libel earlier this summer by William R. Gaffey, a retired scientist and epidemiologist for Monsanto Company. Gaffey's suit centers on an article Montague wrote in the March 7, 1990 issue of his newsletter regarding fraud and manipulation in a series of Monsanto dioxin studies.
These studies, which the government used in part to establish its dioxin regulations, are the subject of an EPA criminal investigation. Dr. Samuel Epstein, a professor of occupational safety and health at the University of Illinois, says that "a clear pattern of fraudulent misconduct" is apparent in the Monsanto and other corporate studies. Monsanto has repeatedly denied such allegations. Analyses of the Monsanto studies by Greenpeace show that dozens of dioxin-exposed workers suffering from cancer and heart disease were inappropriately shifted into an unexposed control group. In some cases, the worker classifications conflicted with the studies' stated criteria; in others, the criteria were specifically designed to exclude workers suffering dioxin- related injuries.
In the article for which Gaffey is suing Montague, Montague quoted criticisms of the Monsanto studies that were made in a brief submitted in a lawsuit against Monsanto. The brief, submitted in Kemner et. al, v Monsanto Co., charges that one study by Judith A. Zack and R. R. Suskind placed four workers exposed to high levels of dioxin in a 1949 Monsanto plant accident in their exposed group, while a study by Zack and Gaffey placed those same workers in an unexposed control group.
These four workers died of cancer; Zack-Gaffey study failed to note that they were actually exposed to high levels of dioxin in the 1949 accident. Placing the workers in the unexposed group, the brief claims, led to a conclusion that dioxin is less toxic than it actually is. Gaffey's suit claims that the substance of this charge is inaccurate and that Montague quoted it with malicious intent.
While Montague was sued for citing allegations made in Kemner, an article in the Journal of Pesticide Reform by Carol Van Strum and environmental attorney Paul Merrill attributes an almost identical allegation to a Monsanto official. They write, "Dr. George Roush, medical director of Monsanto,admitted under extensive cross examination [in Kemner] that the conclusions of both the 1983 [the Zack-Gaffey study] and 1984 studies were 'incorrect,' confirming that Zack and Gaffey ... had knowingly omitted five deaths from the exposed study group and had further reclassified four exposed workers as unexposed, in order to equalize the death rates in the exposed and unexposed workers.
The exposed workers, Dr. Roush admitted, had 18 cancer deaths instead of the 9 deaths reported by Monsanto, an over-all cancer death rate 65 percent higher than the normal population rate." Merrill says, "either the [Zack-Gaffey] study is fraudulent or the guy is absolutely incompetent as an epidemiologist." "I never compared the people in the two studies," Gaffey concedes. "There are two different ways of looking at [dioxin] exposure," he says. "One view is to say that [a] high-level, short, acute burst of exposure is a different phenomena than a long-term, low-level exposure. If you believe that, then you would try to study the two separately." "Another view is that exposure is exposure no matter what, in which case you would say that a person is exposed whether he is exposed acutely or chronically or both."
Gaffey says that the Monsanto studies incorporated the first view, while those criticizing the studies take the second view. "There's no reason why somebody taking the second view of exposure couldn't do a different analysis entirely," he adds. Montague, supported by other critics of the Monsanto studies, contends that the Gaffey's libel suit is designed to quiet dioxin critics. "It's a clear attempt to intimidate me and deny [me] my First Amendment rights," he says. But Gaffey's attorney, Neil Stout, states, "a republisher of a false and libelous statement is responsible for his own libel, even though he got the statement somewhere else."
Yet regardless of how the free speech issue is resolved, Rex Carr, the attorney whose court document Montague quoted, believes that Montague can prove the allegedly libellous statements are in fact true. Gaffey and Stout deny that the suit is an attempt to undercut criticism of the Monsanto studies and the implication that Gaffey is serving larger, corporate interests by bringing the suit. Interestingly, however, Gaffey is being represented by Stout and Joseph G. Nassif, both of whom work for Coburn, Croft & Putzell, a St. Louis law firm which represents Monsanto. Moreover, Nassif is defending Monsanto in the Kemner case.
Fighting the power Much is as stake in the battle over dioxin, with the outcome likely to affect the environmental and safety regulatory regime in the United States. In addition to escaping from potentially massive dioxin-related liabilities, industry hopes that success in its campaign to weaken dioxin regulations will spark a reassessment of the risks posed by a wide range of chemicals and substances currently viewed as hazardous. "Certainly, there are implications for a number of different chemicals in what the EPA is doing," says Joe Walker of The Chlorine Institute.
Michael Gough, the author of the National Chamber Foundation report, concludes that a change in dioxin safety standards will be a "harbinger" of future regulatory upheavals. He told National Public Radio that "if dioxin changes, then the whole risk assessment structure in this country, I think, is going to have a little shudder because if you can change it for dioxin, you should consider changing it for other things."
Meanwhile, environmentalists are calling for an end to manufacturing processes which create dioxin. They say enough scientific evidence has accumulated to merit far-reaching action. Greenpeace has petitioned the EPA to implement a strategy to phase-out manufacturing processes using organochlorines, which produce dioxin, PCBs, furans, ozone- eating chlorofluorocarbons and thousands of other toxic chemicals.
"Enough is known about the persistence and toxicity of organochlorines as a class to justify an outright ban," a recent Greenpeace report contends. But the media's failure to report on developments that contradict industry's dioxin message while giving so much attention to Houk and others' questionable beliefs indicates the power of the forces confronting environmentalists and their allies. Zumwalt says the paucity of press attention given his and Jenkins' affidavits is explained by the "expenditure in lobbying and in media booking on the part of the chemical companies that must outweigh the volunteer effort of those of us on the other side by 10,000 times." He says, "We are up against an awesome case of money and power. It takes a long time when you have key people in government and business working against you."
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