Dioxin for Dinner

For decades the Dow Chemical Company trotted out platoons of scientists and PR flacks to claim that the public had nothing to fear from background levels of dioxin that kept showing up in their blood, milk, and food. These levels of the poison, Dow proclaimed, were the result of naturally occurring phenomena that had been co-evolving with humans since the dawn of time. Dioxin, Dow said, was the harmless by-product of forest fires and volcanoes.

          This hogwash was swallowed wholesale by state and federal politicians, bureaucrats, and important newspapers such as the New York Times, whose environmental reporter Keith Schneider scribbled a series of articles in the late 1980s dismissing the environmental hazards and health perils posed by dioxin. These articles appeared in the wake of the environmental catastrophes at Love Canal in New York and Times Beach in Missouri, where entire communities had been contaminated by the reckless disposal of dioxins and PCBs. Schneider's cynical stories also came on the heels of revelations about serious health problems experienced by Vietnam veterans who had been exposed to Agent Orange, a dioxin-related defoliant. At the time, the chemical companies that had produced dioxin were facing billions in potential liabilities.

          The whole preposterous thesis of dioxin as a discharge of Mother Nature was finally put to rest by scientists sifting through layers of sediment dredged up from the bottom of Lake Superior. When the muck was analyzed in the early 1990s, it transpired that there were no traces of dioxin found before 1940.

          Dioxin is a true child of the 20th century. Its chemical family was created in 1900 in the laboratory of Herbert Dow, founder of Dow Chemical. Dow used jolts of electricity to extract chlorides from huge brine deposits outside Midland, Michigan. The first commodity attained by this process was chlorine bleach, which brought in tens of millions for the young company.

          By the 1930s Dow, DuPont, and Monsanto had discovered another lucrative use for these chlorines. By combining chlorine atoms with petroleum hydrocarbons (waste products from oil and gas operations), the companies created a toxic smorgasbord of chemicals known as chlorinated hydrocarbons. These formed the basis of pesticides, solvents, and plastics. When heated in a pesticide processing plant or burned in an incinerator, these chlorinated compounds release dioxin, the deadliest known family of chemicals that includes 210 toxins ranging from PCBs to furans and TCDDs.

          Those background levels of dioxin written off by Dow's rent-a-scientists in the '70s and '80s had in fact developed as part of a toxic fallout from a nationwide network of incinerators, iron smelters, chemical and cement plants, paper mills that use chlorine bleaching, and factories making polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastics.

          The EPA has known of the serious health consequences of dioxin in the environment since 1971, but has taken scant action aside from some ineffectual initiatives on dioxin exposure at the workplace. Even these meager moves have been under constant attack from the chemical lobby and its allies. In 1991, the paper industry (the main source of dioxin releases into the nation's water supply) and the Chlorine Council, a dioxin-users trade association, prevailed on Dan Quayle and his Competitiveness Council to intervene with EPA and relax even those frail regulations. The EPA duly complied, announcing that loosening standards was part of a long-term assessment of the toxicity of dioxin.

          The results of that study, commenced in 1992, are now in. They are not what the chemical industry had been bargaining for. In fact--short of major nuclear accidents--dioxin now ranks as the most toxic threat to the general population.

          Nearly everyone in the country is already carrying what is called a "body burden of dioxin" 500 times greater than the "acceptable risk" level for carcinogens. Dioxin can be considered a sort of environment hormone that ravages the endocrine system, distorting cell growth. In men, dioxin elevates testosterone levels, reduces sperm counts, and leads to increased rates of diabetes. In the last 50 years, sperm counts have declined by more than 50 percent, while testicular cancer has tripled.

          In women, dioxin seems to prompt endometriosis, a painful uterine disorder that now afflicts 5 million women a year. Dioxin exposure has also been linked to breast cancer, a disease that has more than doubled since 1960. Pregnant women are especially vulnerable, since the daily level of dioxin intake is enough to cause long-term damage to fetuses, giving rise to birth defects, disrupted sexual development, and damage to the immune system. If you live in the Great Lakes region, your body burden of dioxin may be two to three times greater than that of someone living on the West Coast. Both weather patterns and clustering of chemical plants produce this additional exposure.

          In surveying the dangers of dioxin, the EPA's risk assessment process focuses only on the immediate area surrounding isolated sources of dioxin emission, such as incinerators or pulp mills. The agency assumes that exposure is associated only with drinking water, air, and dioxin-contaminated soils. The impression left is that the greatest risk of dioxin exposure is to workers at chemical plants and people who live near dioxin-emitting facilities. But a new two-year study of dioxin in the Great Lakes region by a team of scientists at Queens College, New York City, led by Dr. Barry Commoner shows a different story.

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