The Dioxin Deception

By Tamara Straus,
The causes of cancer are contested. Certainly there is
evidence that the disease can be passed down from generation to
generation. There is also, of course, proof that smoking can cause lung
cancer and a diet high in salt and sugar can cause stomach cancer. But
there is no way to predict with certainty who will get cancer or why.
And so the wives’ tales proliferate: deodorant causes breast cancer;
stress causes brain cancer; repression causes colon cancer.
However there is one general connection that has been
proved but remains buried. It is the connection between dioxin and
cancer. Dioxin is formed when chlorine-containing chemicals, like
plastic or industrial waste, are burned, or when pulp or paper are
bleached. The chemical then becomes airborne, settling on plants that
are eaten by animals, which, in turn, are eaten by humans. Humans retain
dioxins in their fatty tissue through both meat and dairy consumption.
And once dioxin is lodged in the body there it remains.
Scientists have known the dangers of dioxin for a long
time. When the US Environmental Protection Agency completed its first
health assessment of dioxin in 1985, it reported that more people will
get more cancer from dioxin than any other chemical on earth. The
assessment was intended to form the basis of all future EPA regulations
of dioxin emissions.
But, according to a report released on April 3 by the
Center for Health, Environmental and Justice, the paper and chlorine
industries pressured the EPA to reconsider publishing its assessment —
and have succeeded in burying, waylaying and buying off government
officials ever since. CHEJ’s report, "Behind Closed Doors," is
among the most damning studies ever written on how the chemical industry
has influenced policy makers and concealed vital health information from
the public.
Behind Closed Doors reveals that year after year the
publication of the EPA’s report on dioxin has been stalled due to
pressure from the chemical industry. Tactics have included:
– funding alternative scientific panels, which
downplay the health threats of dioxin
– pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars into the
campaigns of President Bush and former New Jersey Governor Christine
Todd Whitman (who now runs the EPA)
– influencing the negotiations of the United Nations
Treaty on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPS), which is intended to
eliminate the proliferation of dioxin and other pollutants
– suing the EPA on the grounds that its guidelines for
classifying dioxin as a "known human carcinogen" are false
– squelching community groups and anti-dioxin
– and attempting to prevent local governments, such as
the California counties of San Francisco and Marin and the cities of
Oakland, Berkeley, San Francisco and Palo Alto, from passing resolutions
to phase out dioxin sources.
"If you start telling people that every child
born in this country has dioxin in their body," said Gary Cohen of
the Environmental Health Fund, a partner of CHEJ, "if you show them
the list of health effects and that every mother is passing dioxin on to
her child, if you say we are all being exposed to hundreds of thousands
of chemicals — it’s an explosive issue. And the chemical industry,
particularly the chlorine section of the chemical industry, will be in
So you might say it is in the chemical industry’s
interests to keep scientific studies of dioxin poisoning under wraps.
Among the key findings of "Behind Closed Doors" is the role
the American Chemical Council and the Chlorine Chemistry Council have
played in preventing a final release of the EPA’s dioxin assessment.
Chiefly, the report shows that the ACC and CCC have
manipulated the Science Advisory Board of the EPA’s dioxin committee
through money. The CHEJ’s research on the November 2000 dioxin committee
shows that a third of its members received funding from 91
dioxin-generating companies, like Dow and DuPont.
One panel member, John Graham, the director of the
Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, who has a long history of working for
the chemical industry, told National Public Radio last year that the
chances of getting cancer from dioxin and getting killed in a car crash
were both 1 in 100, which put dioxin "on par with common
risks." However, the EPA’s 2000 draft report on dioxin health risks
reports that the "chemical is 10 times more likely to cause cancer
than previously estimated," according to a May 18 New York Times
Of course, the EPA’s report has not been released, so
the EPA scientist who talked to the Times spoke on the condition of
anonymity. But he also mentioned that the EPA’s data showed that
"dioxin might alter [human] development and that it might affect
thyroid secretions." Other known health risks of dioxin documented
by the EPA and CHEJ include attention deficit disorder, learning
disabilities, weakened immune system, birth defects and endometriosis,
which often results in infertility.
Health activists had hoped that the EPA would publish
its dioxin report during the Clinton administration. As Cohen put it
last fall, "if the report is not released before November or if
Gore does not win the presidency, it will never see the light of
For that reason, "Behind Closed Doors" was
released the same day Whitman met with top EPA scientists and policy
officials to talk about the future of the dioxin reassessment. But given
that, according to CHEJ, Whitman did much to deregulate the chemical
industry’s environmental standards while governor (reducing, for
example, air and water pollution violation fines from $40 million to $11
million in eight years), and that, according to Newsweek, the American
Chemistry Council raised over $350,000 for Bush’s campaign, further
stalls are likely.
So Americans will remain in the dark. Still, there is
evidence of a growing movement against the chemical industry. On March
26, Bill Moyers’ PBS special "Trade Secrets" exposed how
chemical companies hid damaging information about vinyl chloride, one of
the most potent sources of dioxin.
This unearthing of years of chemical industry
documents by Moyers, as well as the reports of CHEJ and other groups may
well lead to a public outcry and class action lawsuits. In which case,
the chemical industry will find itself embroiled in scandal similar to
the one the tobacco industry faced during the last decade.
For more information on the health risks of dioxin, go
to the Center for Health, Justice and the Environment (http://www.chej.org).

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