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You probably don’t remember when the EPA released its report on dioxin in September in the same way you remember, say, when JFK was shot or O.J. took his ride in the Ford Bronco. But the headlines might ring a bell: "Dioxin Pollution Risks ’Worse than Feared,’" "Toxicity of Times Beach ’No Longer in Doubt,’" "Dioxin Scare is Real." Here’s the catch.
The EPA report was just a draft. As in: "not the one that counts." As such, it had yet to be evaluated by the agency’s Scientific Advisory Board (SAB). Now that board has rejected the conclusions that led to those scary headlines and sent the report back to the agency for a rewrite.
Alas, no headlines this time. No, not a single major newspaper (or minor one that I’m aware of) ran a news story on the SAB decision, though Science magazine gave it a short write-up ("Panel Slams EPA’s Dioxin Analysis") and there were a few editorials and op-eds. For 15 years now, the EPA has pursued a vendetta against dioxin, a by-product of paper bleaching, and of incineration of certain materials. Until it was banned as such, it was also a by-product in the manufacturing of some herbicides, including the notorious Agent Orange.
Ever since the chemical was found to be horribly toxic to guinea pigs — albeit far less so to every other animal species tested, including other rodents — the EPA and other environmental organizations have relentlessly attacked it as they have no other chemical save the pesticide DDT. Fear of dioxin contamination led to the evacuation of Love Canal and Times Beach, Missouri, and to telling Vietnam vets that they may be at extraordinary risk of disease.
As a member of the class of chemicals called organochlorines, dioxin has become a cornerstone of Greenpeace’s and other groups’ efforts to ban all synthetic organochlorines — a ban that would cripple the economy. The purpose of the EPA draft report was to show that this vendetta had been justified. In addition to the old charge of dioxin being a possible human carcinogen — causing as many as one in 1,000 human cancers — the EPA added two newer charges: that it might affect human children in the womb and that it could compromise immune systems at levels approaching those to which Americans are currently exposed.
While those human exposure levels are infinitesimal compared to our exposure to so many other chemicals, the EPA maintained that what causes illness in some animals at huge doses must also cause sickness in humans at tiny ones. Predictably it prompted such headlines such as "EPA: Dioxin Exposure is Risky for People, Too."
The EPA under Administrator Carol Browner: Makin’ it up as they go along.
But several scientists at the meeting challenged the EPA’s assumption, used in all its policy-making that there is no threshold below which a harmful chemical causes no harm. One was the University of Wisconsin’s Alan Poland, widely known for his discovery of the "dioxin receptor," the molecule in cells to which dioxin must bind before it produces any affects. He said 150 years of science contradicted the EPA no-threshold position.
Regarding dioxin, Poland said the normal level to which Americans are exposed — four molecules of dioxin per cell — is far below the number required to have an effect, considering that there are about 10,000 receptor molecules per cell.
One EPA official complained to me that the board meeting had unfairly been characterized as negative. In fact, he said, the only problems the SAB found were with the ninth chapter. Of the first eight, it was highly complimentary.
But that’s just the point. The first eight chapters were written by scientists outside of the EPA. Only the last chapter, the conclusive one, the one from which EPA was to draw its regulatory policy and from which the media drew the headlines — that was the one written by the EPA itself.
In that chapter, said Poland at the meeting, "policy masquerades as science."
"This is probably the best data set that the EPA will see in my lifetime," Poland added. "Yet, despite all of that, the first eight chapters are thrown away."
Board members repeatedly accused the EPA of picking and choosing its data. For example, the largest, most-heavily studied group of persons with known high exposure to dioxin were the members of Operation Ranch Hand, the men who did the actual spraying of Agent Orange on the jungles of South Vietnam. (Their motto: "Only you can prevent forests.") The EPA report duly noted any possible minor abnormality in this group. But it neglected to say the Ranch Handers were strapping specimens of healthy humanity.
"The EPA didn’t mention that there were no more cancers than would be expected, no affects on the immune and nervous systems, no increase in deaths, and no increased birth defects in their children." SAB member and Office of Technology Assessment official Michael Gough told me. "They mentioned nothing that didn’t serve their purpose."
One SAB member, Dr. Knute Ringen of the Center to Protect Workers’ Rights in Washington, D.C., concluded: "I think that the agency has pretty much come to the end of the line with regard to producing useful decision-making information on dioxin, and that it’s time to go on to something else."
But the EPA’s dogged obsession with justifying its dioxin policy will not end — unless, that is, Congress finally pulls the purse strings shut.