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.  

          The greatest source of exposure to dioxin does not stem from proximity to a chemical plant or incinerator, but from consumption of contaminated food. Less than 10 percent of dioxin particles settle to Earth within 30 miles of its source, i.e., an incinerator. At least half of the dioxin falling on the fields, lakes, and dairies of the Great Lakes states comes from incinerators located up to 1,500 miles away.

          Such environmental regulations as are in place fail to deal with any of the realities disclosed by Commoner's team. For one thing, nearly all of our exposure to dioxin comes from food, not from breathing contaminated air or drinking dioxin-laced water. Dioxin is a fat-soluble chemical, meaning it bioaccumulates up the food chain. For example, fish from Lake Michigan show levels of dioxin more than 100,000 times higher than the surrounding water, plants, and sediment. Two-thirds of the average American's exposure to dioxin comes from milk, cheese, and beef, a result of cows eating contaminated food crops.

          "The risk to the people of Chicago is not so much from inhaling dioxins emitted by the city's trash-burning incinerators," Commoner said. "But rather from ingesting milk and cheese produced from farms in Wisconsin and Minnesota."

          Tracing sources of contamination from their area of research around the Great Lakes, Commoner and his colleagues were able to identify 1,360 culprits, as far afield as Utah, Florida, and Texas. The biggest culprits are the least regulated: medical waste incinerators. There are 623 of them in the Great Lakes region, in the form of hospitals, nursing homes, funeral homes, medical labs, blood banks, veterinary clinics, and crematoria. One reason they are such a high source of dioxin is modern medicine's increased use of chlorinated plastics.

          In most hospitals, waste is divided into black bag and red bag categories. Black bag waste consists of discarded paper, plastic, glass, metal, and food waste--not so different from what you might find in household trash. This accounts for about 85 percent of the medical waste stream. Then there is red bag waste, which includes anatomical waste, gauze pads, catheters and infectious or pathological materials. The per-patient yield of red and black bag waste is about thirteen pounds a day. Pleading poverty, the medical and funeral lobby have persuaded the EPA to hold off from any burdensome supervision of the way they incinerate this avalanche of dioxin-suffused matter.

          The second leading source of dioxin in the Great Lakes region comes from 57 municipal waste incinerators, burning 12 million tons of trash a year. Every load of trash dumped into those solid waste incinerators contains plastics, solvents, and chlorine-based products that when burned create dioxin. In fact, recent research shows that incinerators actually synthesize dioxin, producing from the smokestacks nearly 500 times the amount of dioxin chemicals as were present in the source material. Most of the dioxin now coursing through the bodies of Americans was actually created by the incinerators.

          Of the eight Great Lakes states, Minnesota ranks behind only Michigan in the number of hospitals with an on-site incinerator. There are 113 such incinerators in Minnesota burning more than four thousand tons of infectious waste a year. In addition, Minnesota has 20 crematories and a commercial medical waste incinerator.

          Minnesota also ranks second in the number of municipal solid waste incinerators with 13, including the massive Hennepin incinerator in Minneapolis. Altogether, the Minnesota incinerators burn three million tons of waste a year. Only New York incinerates more trash.

          According to Commoner, nearly all of the dioxin emitted from these incinerators could be eliminated, either by intensive recycling or with landfills. Commoner estimates that switching to these methods could save cities $350 million a year. By the same token, black bag medical waste can also be safely recycled, while the red bag medical waste can be sterilized through autoclave technology and then landfilled.

          Not surprisingly, the EPA has shown little interest in moving toward the elimination of dioxin-spewing incinerators. Instead, the agency has adopted the strategy of pollution control, relying on scrubbers and other expensive technological fixes that cannot reduce dioxin emissions to zero. "The Clinton administration and some of its acolytes in the Washington environmental community, like the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council, are spending their scarce resources jousting in court over the meaning of things like 'maximum control technology' and not even discussing real pollution prevention, which requires not emitting dioxin to begin with," charged Dr. Peter Montague, director of the Environmental Research Foundation in Annapolis, Maryland.  

          Montague points out that many of these national environmental groups endorsed the repeal of the Delaney Clause, which prohibited the addition of carcinogens to processed food. The zero tolerance standard of Delaney will be replaced by a risk-assessment strategy that allows supposedly safe levels of carcinogens in the food supply. But risk assessments, particularly in the case of chemicals such as dioxin, vastly underestimate the actual cancer risks by looking at the health consequences of individual sources of pollution, instead of examining what Commoner calls the "entire ecosystem of carcinogens."

          "This is the painful lesson that ecology teaches," Commoner said. "The danger of dioxins is vastly greater than the risk assessments have led us to believe; it threatens entire populations with unacceptable risk of cancer and poses grave hazards to fetal development."

          Of course, there are powerful forces arrayed against any move to zero out dioxin emissions, led by multi-billion dollar chemical giants such as Dow, Monsanto, and DuPont. These companies maintain huge political action committees. Combined, they dole out more than $2 million a year to federal candidates of both parties.

          The big trash disposal companies, such as Waste Management and Browning Ferris Industries, also have an enormous stake in keeping the incinerators running, despite the dire dangers to public health. These companies hold lucrative contracts from cities to burn municipal trash, and both have spent tens of millions greenwashing their mephitic business, including dumping loads of cash into the coffers of large environmental groups. Waste Management CEO Dean Buntrock has served for years on the board of the National Wildlife Federation, which supports incineration as an ecologically sound method of waste disposal.

          As a result, both political parties are beholden to the dioxin lobby. Bob Dole has been the prime legislator for the chemical-agriculture industry and has opposed any attempts to rein in the production of dioxin allied chemicals. Jack Kemp, whose congressional district adjoined the dioxin-saturated Love Canal, downplayed the toxicity of the chemical and dismissed local activists such as Lois Gibbs as hysterical housewives. Kemp voted repeatedly to ditch the Superfund law and has railed boisterously against Community Right-to-Know statutes.

          Similarly, Bill Clinton has maintained a long-standing relationship to the hazardous waste incineration business. One week prior to his election as president, Clinton gave the go-ahead for the Vertac incinerator, which has poisoned the town of Jacksonville, Arkansas with lethal levels of dioxins and other toxins. A month into his administration, Clinton overruled EPA scientists and betrayed his own campaign promises by giving the green light to WTI's deadly PCB incinerator in Liverpool, Ohio. For nearly a decade, Hillary Rodham Clinton collected $30,000 a year as a director of the Lafarge Corporation, one of the nation's biggest cement manufacturers, which heats its massive, dioxin-seething kilns with millions of gallons of toxic sludge. The cement industry continues to enjoy an exemption from key environmental laws governing the incineration of hazardous waste, an exemption that owes much to the influence of Hillary Clinton in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

          Lois Gibbs, now director of the Citizens' Clearinghouse on Hazardous Waste, sees the problem as a failure of the political process to deal with the growing power of multinational corporations. "We can't shut down the sources of dioxin without finding the courage to change the way government works," Gibbs says. "We have to explore how people became powerless as the corporations became powerful. We have to figure out a way to speak honestly and act collectively to rebuild our democracy."

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