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23. Dioxin: Still Deadly After All These Years (and All That Hype)

Source: EARTH ISLAND JOURNAL Date: Spring 1995; “EPA Study Reveals Dioxin Dangers”; Author: Stephen Lester

SYNOPSIS: When the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) long awaited “reassessment” of the health effects of dioxin was finally released in draft form in September 1994, it indicated that dioxin’s health impacts were worse than previously reported. The preliminary EPA study confirmed what grassroots activists have feared: dioxin, a by-product of chemical processes that use chlorine, does irreparable damage to the human body.

Yet, for a full year, these findings have gone almost unnoticed by the mass media. These are the same media that widely publicized a 1991 report by The Centers for Disease Control that found dioxin was less harmful than previously suspected and subsequently led the EPA to consider a “reassessment.”

These were upbeat dioxin stories on how we’ve been confused once again by experts who can’t seem to agree on anything. There was even an “NBC Nightly News” mention (8/15/91) of how folks from the contaminated, condemned, and evacuated Times Beach area along the Mississippi River, were wondering if it might be okay to go home again.

But the recent unpublicized EPA report found that dioxin levels 100 times lower than those associated with developing cancer may cause severe reproductive and developmental effects, and disrupt regulatory hormones in industrial workers and laboratory animals.

Ninety percent of dioxin enters the human body through the food chain. Dioxin particles produced by industrial processes and waste lodge in soil, settle on plants, and contaminate water systems. People then eat fish, meat, and produce that contain low but hazardous dioxin levels. The report details how dioxin and dioxin-like chemicals damage the body by “attaching” to specific receptor sites in cell tissues. When hormones and enzymes are displaced, certain normal cell functions cannot be carried out. The report clearly suggests that, despite earlier reports, no amount of exposure to dioxin is safe.

Dioxin is created as a byproduct of the manufacturing process by chemical companies; plastics producers; makers of rubber, dyes and pesticides; pulp and paper mills that use chlorine bleaches; and incinerator plants.

The report does not mention corporate producers of dioxin, such as Dow or Monsanto, who stand to lose if the EPA clamps down on dioxin releases. For years, these companies have orchestrated a political and scientific campaign to confuse the public and create a bureaucratic stalemate.

Corporations could face billion-dollar lawsuits for health and environmental damage caused by dioxin exposures. But they stand to save millions of dollars if they can settle pending lawsuits before the EPA reassessment is finalized, because the final report would give complainants greater evidence that dioxin is hazardous.

The Virginia-based Citizens Clearinghouse for Hazardous Waste has called for an immediate halt to the incineration of hazardous waste and a phaseout of chlorinated organic compounds in all industrial production. Greenpeace’s Zero Dioxin campaign argues that processes that create dioxin must either be altered so that no dioxin is produced, or banned.

SSU Censored Researcher: Mary Jo Thayer

COMMENTS: The significance of the recent findings of the health dangers of dioxin received very little attention from the mainstream press, according to investigative author Stephen Lester. “To my knowledge, there was no TV coverage, no coverage by the news weeklies and only minor coverage by several major newspapers. Given that dioxin is the most potent carcinogen for the general population ever tested; that we know that dioxin is coming from incinerators, paper mills and chemical processing plants; and that it is getting into dairy products, meat, fish and breast milk, you’d think that the issue would have received more than the cursory attention of the chemical trade press and one day of “here’s EPA’s newest report’ in the Washington Post and New York Times.”

Lester warned that dioxin is the DDT of the ‘90s. “It is persistent, pervasive and showing up in the bodies of people all over the world. It differs from DDT in that the main concern with DDT was its carcinogenicity. With dioxin, not only is it a potent carcinogen, but its non-cancer causing effects (infertility, depressed immune response, endometriosis, loss of sex drive, diabetes) occur at very low levels, levels already found in the general population. These and other non-cancer effects may prove to be more important than dioxin’s ability to cause cancer. We have to know what dioxin is, where it is coming from, and how it’s hurting us before we can do anything about it. And, we need to know that we can do something about it. Not lifestyle changes, but saving our lives.”

Lester charges corporate America is benefiting from the limited media coverage given dioxin. “More specifically, the chemical and paper industry that does not want to alter its production practices to eliminate the chemicals (largely chlorine) that generate dioxin as a by-product of production. Industry says that we need more studies and they hire high powered public relations firms to argue their points and deluge the mainstream media with issues designed to confuse and defuse the press’s interest. Government is reluctant to act and finds it easiest to do nothing but study and study and study and study …”

The organization Lester works for, the Citizens Clearinghouse for Hazardous Waste, has begun a campaign to educate the American public about the dangers of dioxin. “We have written several additional articles for our newsletter, prepared “campaign kits,’ sent copies to grassroots environmental organizations and to the mainstream press. We have written and published a book—Dying from Dioxin (South End Press, 1995)—and have begun efforts to create alliances with organizations across the country to educate people and begin to eliminate dioxin exposures. Still, there has been very little media interest and coverage of this story.”

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