The Dioxin Deception

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.

Yet 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 activists

- 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 trouble."

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 article.

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 day."

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 (


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