Dioxin: Studied to Death

Dioxin: Studied to Death

Industry has been doing all it can to keep an EPA report from being published.


He’s not the quickest calf in the pasture, so it took George W. Bush, and his White House handlers, a few months to grasp a basic rule of modern American electoral politics: Don’t look bad on the environment. After thirty-one years of Earth Days, the environment has become a mom-and-apple-pie issue; 68 percent of Americans say they support the goals of the green movement. Thus it was no surprise to see Bush’s poll numbers sliding, even among Republicans, as his Administration abandoned lower limits on arsenic in drinking water, the Kyoto Protocols on climate change and a host of other urgent measures.

Desperate to show that he favored clean air and water after all, Bush announced in the week before Earth Day a flurry of his own environmental initiatives. Most were more symbolic than substantive, but one–his promise to sign the Persistent Organic Pollutants Treaty in Stockholm on May 23–could promote real environmental progress. The POPs treaty, as it’s known, would limit or ban a “dirty dozen” of the world’s most toxic chemicals, including DDT, PCBs and the carcinogenic form of dioxin. True, Bush’s endorsement of the treaty was made easier by the acquiescence of the chemical industry, whose longstanding resistance softened after negotiators inserted sufficient wiggle room into the final text. The treaty still calls for a dioxin phaseout, for example, but only “wherever feasible”–a loophole corporate lawyers can exploit for years to come.

Nevertheless, Bush has a problem. The EPA is preparing to release a major study of dioxin’s health effects that, if uncensored, will surely increase pressure for dioxin’s rapid phaseout. Meanwhile, the chemical, paper and other dioxin-related industries are pressing his Administration to block the study’s release. If Bush heeds their call, he shields industry from costly new regulations but reinforces his antigreen reputation. And there’s a final irony here for Bush: Not only was the dioxin study begun by his father’s EPA; it was initiated at the behest of the very corporations now trying to bury it.

On January 23, 1991, the CEOs of four of America’s biggest paper companies had a meeting with William Reilly, the EPA Administrator under President George Bush the First. The executives, who represented Georgia-Pacific, International Paper, Champion International and Simpson Paper, were worried. As they reiterated in a follow-up letter to Reilly obtained by Greenpeace, their industry was facing “billions of dollars of needless toxic tort litigation” because of “needless public alarm” about dioxin, the chemical whose involvement in the Agent Orange and Love Canal scandals was giving it a reputation as one of the most toxic chemicals on earth.

The executives wanted Reilly’s help to fend off tighter regulations–what the CEOs called “interference by EPA in functioning marketplaces.” In 1985 the EPA had published a study of dioxin’s health effects that included a remarkably high estimate of its cancer risk–one of the highest risks, in fact, of any chemical that had ever been studied. The CEOs told Reilly they wanted the EPA to launch a new study, one taking account of “important new information” that just happened to suggest that dioxin was less dangerous than previously believed.

Reilly agreed, and the EPA began what has now become a ten-year study of dioxin’s health effects. In an interview this March, Dwain Winters, director of the EPA’s dioxin policy project, called the 3,200-page tome known as the Dioxin Reassessment “one of the strongest pieces of science the agency has ever done,” an example of “mega-science” that will “drive the EPA’s policies for the next ten years.” Some environmentalists liken the study’s potential impact to that of the 1964 Surgeon General’s Report, which linked cigarette smoking to lung cancer and other health problems, and began the long, slow process of bringing the tobacco industry to heel.

But a funny thing happened on the way to publication: Industry seems to have lost enthusiasm for the study it once demanded. Indeed, the paper, chemical, meat and dairy, and other dioxin-related industries are mounting a fierce campaign to dilute and delay the Dioxin Reassessment, according to industry documents and interviews with EPA officials and scientists who are peer-reviewing the study for the EPA’s Science Advisory Board (SAB).

It’s not hard to see why industry has changed its tune. The findings of the Dioxin Reassessment are nothing less than harrowing. A draft version of the report, made public last summer, concluded that dioxin was no longer a potential but rather a “known” human carcinogen that could be giving one out of 100 high-risk Americans cancer. That figure has since been revised to one in 1,000, still a disturbingly high ratio. (How many Americans are high-risk has not been quantified. Every person on earth has dioxin in his system, but people who eat lots of fatty foods–dioxin lodges in fatty tissues and accumulates through the food chain–end up with the highest body burdens. Exposure is especially high for people, often poor or nonwhite or both, living near paper mills, steel plants, municipal and medical incinerators, and other facilities that emit dioxin. Forty-six percent of the nation’s public-housing projects are situated within a mile of toxic factories, according to a University of Texas, Dallas, study.) And while it is dioxin’s cancer risks that tend to make headlines, more worrisome is dioxin’s ability to cause birth defects, reproductive failures and damage to young children’s thyroid and immune systems, says Dr. Richard Clapp, an epidemiologist at Boston University who serves on the SAB’s dioxin review panel and is critical of industry’s efforts to undermine the study.

“Industry pushed for this study as a way to stall tougher regulations, and now it’s gotten bitten in the ass, because the evidence has only gotten stronger in the past ten years,” says Rick Hind of Greenpeace, one of 411 activist groups that recently wrote to Bush and EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman, urging the study’s release.

“I don’t agree we’re trying to kill the report,” says C.T. Howlett Jr., executive director of the Chlorine Chemistry Council and vice president of the American Chemistry Council. “We have participated in these meetings as an interested stakeholder. The idea of something underhanded going on just isn’t true. All we’re asking is for the SAB panel to be given adequate time to do a thorough review of a 3,200-page document. There have been 1,500 scientific studies done of dioxin’s health effects since the first draft was issued in 1995, but only 300 of them are incorporated in the new draft. And the EPA’s risk numbers for dioxin are way out of sync with those of the US Public Health Service and the World Health Organization.”

Last fall, industry lobbyists got a rider attached to a Congressional budget resolution that would have delayed the dioxin study’s release until a highly unusual third peer review was conducted. The rider failed, but industry lobbyists have since repeated the request to Bush Administration officials. Industry leaders apparently enjoy direct access to the President. Frederick Webber, head of the American Chemistry Council, a chief sponsor of the industry’s campaign against the dioxin study, was a major fundraiser for Bush’s presidential campaign; the ACC eventually contributed some $350,000.

Howlett denies that Webber has spoken to anyone at the EPA about the dioxin study and insists that industry has a right to make its views known: “We’re one of the regulated sources [of dioxin]–since when did we lose our constitutional right to redress our government?”

Dwain Winters of the EPA confirms that industry is “clearly wishing to delay” the dioxin study’s release, but he adds, “they’re entitled to state their opinions.” Industry has done more than that, however; it has also sought to influence the scientific process, specifically the SAB’s peer reviews of the study. Following a meeting of the SAB’s dioxin panel in November 2000, Howlett wrote to the SAB’s staff director, Dr. Donald Barnes, demanding that the dioxin subcommittee be disbanded, a new panel appointed in its place and the entire study subjected to yet another peer review, a step that would delay its release for years. On what grounds? The “outrageous behavior” of the audience at the November meeting, where activists waved placards warning about “cigarette science” bought by “dioxin industry corporations” whenever certain panel members spoke.

Six of the twenty-one members of the panel have financial ties to dioxin-producing companies, and its chairman, NYU Professor Morton Lippmann, has close ties to the chemical industry, according to disclosure data compiled by the Center for Health, Environment and Justice, a nonprofit group urging release of the EPA’s dioxin study. The industry-funded scientists have consistently acted to slow the panel’s work and weaken its conclusions, says panel member Clapp, who notes that the EPA originally pledged to release the study in 1993. “Part of the reason our process is taking so much longer than expected is that we’ve had such time-consuming disagreements over things like whether dioxin is actually beneficial to human health,” says Clapp. Dioxin is one of the most toxic substances on earth, potent at such vanishingly low doses that it is measured in parts per trillion. Nevertheless, says Clapp, at the panel’s meeting in November, industry experts “spent the first hour insisting that at low doses dioxin could actually help to prevent breast cancer.” Two other SAB panel members, who declined to be identified by name, said that “some members were concerned about the chairman’s executive summary of the November meeting” because its harsh criticisms of the EPA’s overall findings contradicted the views most members had expressed at the meeting. “We’re rewriting the report now,” one source said, though he added that the panel “will probably remain split…which will give the EPA a lot of flexibility in what it eventually decides to do.” Lippmann declined to respond to repeated phone calls requesting comment.

“The members of the SAB panel were picked by [Clinton’s EPA chief] Carol Browner,” says Howlett, “and they also include experts who take money from foundations that fund NGOs to attack the credibility of any scientist who has worked with industry. The NGOs have a financial interest in keeping dioxin an issue to help with fundraising; with emissions having fallen by 95 percent since 1987, they’re afraid of losing the issue.”

So, will the Dioxin Reassessment ever see the light of day? The SAB executive committee meets again May 15. Meanwhile, the report’s contents are no secret; a working draft is on the agency’s website (www.epa.gov/sab), and the media have reported on it. But until the EPA formally approves it, the study has no official standing, and the agency has no obligation to issue new regulations on dioxin. EPA officials have told the Washington Post that they are determined to issue the study this summer. EPA Administrator Whitman, however, has been noncommittal, and it’s unknown whether President Bush has a position.

For their part, dioxin-reliant companies seem certain to continue their campaign against the study. When the paper industry CEOs met with EPA chief Reilly ten years ago, they said they wanted regulation of dioxin to rest on “sound science, not on naïve ideas or a personal philosophy about what is ‘good’ for ‘the public.'” Over the subsequent years, “sound science” has become an industry mantra, invoked time and again by corporations seeking to mask their resistance to environmental regulations in noble-sounding rhetoric. The history of the EPA’s dioxin study suggests, however, that what industry really means by “sound science” is science that sounds good for the bottom line.

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