May 18, 1994

Dioxin, the most toxic of all man-made chemicals. It’s been called the Watergate of molecules. Its poison trail winds through time, from the jungles of Vietnam to the Ozark hills. With more than two dozen confirmed dioxin-contaminated cleanup sites in Eastern Missouri, and a proposed dioxin incinerator at Times Beach, St. Louis could very well be considered the dioxin capital of the world.

The latest scientific evidence indicates increased dangers to the general population. The evidence follows years of continuing debate over the subject in both the laboratory and the courtroom. Research now shows that dioxin and related chemicals may be responsible for everything from fetal abnormalities to male feminization. The case studies are like a cheklist of industrial nations; they span the globe from Seveso, Italy to Times Beach.

It’s a big story. But judging from the coverage in the St. Louis Post Dispatch, it would be hard to tell. Here in Monsanto City, as one environmentalist not-so-fondly calls it, the public is being told not to be alarmed about dioxin-exposure levels, despite evidence of a significant health problem.

Gerson Smoger, a lawyer with more than a decade of experience in dioxin-related cases tell the Riverfront Times that he suspects the newspaper industry is treading softly on the dioxin issue because of its close ties to paper and pulp companies that create dioxin as an unwanted byproduct in their chlorine-bleaching process. Remediation has been a costly proposition that has already resulted in a concerted effort by newsprint interests to loosen Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standards on dioxin. “One of the big things to remember, when you are reading this, is that it’s costing newspapers probably billions of dollars. I don’t know how this affects the Riverfront Times, but a lot of major papers own paper and pulp mill,” says Smoger.

The latest news to be de-emphasized is a summary draft of the EPA’s long-delayed reassessment of dioxin, which was leaked to the press last week. Those findings show that all Americans are likely to have already been exposed to levels of dioxin that may cause a plethora of illnesses. The summary among other things, links dioxin exposure to immunological disorders infertility and cancer.

In response to the EPA’s reassessment, the May 11 Post-Dispatch chose to reprint a highly condensed version of The New York Times coverage on page 3A. The next day, a follow-up story was moved to the bottom of page 1B. both stories were given headlines that could be considered misleading. The main headline on May 12, for instance, says: “Draft Report from EPA Gives Assurances on Dioxin.”

The EPA draft itself reads much differently. Here’s an excerpt from the actual EPA report obtained by the RFT:

“Based on all the data reviewed in this reassessment, a picture emerges of TCDD (dioxin) and related compounds as potent toxicants producing a wide range of effects at very low levels when compared with other environmental contaminants.”
Those official words don’t sound too reassuring. But poo-poohing dioxin risks is far from unprecedented. It is uncertain whether the cause of this lax reporting is institutionalized lethargy, individual inattention or something more sinister, as Smoger suggests. But only last week the Post-Dispatch downplayed other dioxin-related news even more than the leaked EPA reassessment.

* A story about the halting of a controversial medical waste incinerator plan in the city ran on page 1B below the fold. No environmentalists who opposed the project were quoted in the story.

* A demand by U.S. Rep Jim Talent, no friend of environmentalists, that the EPA not build a planned $116 million dioxin incinerator at Times Beach was tacked onto the end of the medical-waste incinerator story. The congressman’s remarks, which included pleas for considering alternative technologies, appeared on page 3B without a headline.

* News of the St. Louis County Council’s unanimous opposition to the planned Times Beach dioxin incinerator and the council’s request to the Missouri Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to withhold permits was relegated to one paragraph at the bottom of page 3C.

Under-reporting the dangers of dioxin is something that St. Louisans have been overexposed to for a long time.

“There certainly has been a strong and continuing attempt to linguistically detoxify dioxin,” says Pat Costner, the national director of the environmental group Greenpeace’s toxics campaign. Costner, a 54 year-old chemist, formerly worked for the petrochemical industry that she now opposes. After years of fighting dioxin incinerator in her native Arkansas, she sees the EPA’s report as a clear mandate.
“All of the evidence-gathering considered in this reassessment makes an absolutely airtight case that the government in this country must move as quickly as possible to stop all releases of dioxin into the environment,” says Costner.

It will not be a simple task. If there is anything more complicated than the science of dioxin, it is the politics and history of dioxin. The three are inextricably twisted like together like a mutated triple helix.

“There’s a difference between science and politics. Scientifically, it was very carefully done, and very conservatively done,” says Smoger of the EPA reassessment. “What one has to remember is that the reassessment was commissioned under the Republican administration. The original purpose of the reassessment was actually to downgrade dioxin as a toxin, because the Chlorine Institute wished to relax regulations, because they weren’t complying with emission standards downstream and for incinerators. (But) now the reassessment actually said it’s more dangerous than we thought before.”

The EPA called for its reassessment of dioxin in 1991, in the wake of an expensive public-relations campaign by the paper and chlorine industries. The tactics included industry-financed conferences and studies that purportedly showed proof dioxin was less dangerous than once thought. These efforts were backed up by paper executives directly lobbying William K. Reilly, the Bush administration’s EPA head.

The main cheerleader for lowering dioxin standards on the government’s side was Vernon N. Houk, who was then a director at the federal Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta. Houk has since retired and was unavailable for comment late last week. In 1990, his pro industry activities came under the close scrutiny of a House government operations sub-committee chaired by the late Rep. Ted Weiss of New York. Testifying under oath before the same body in 1989, Adm. Elmo R. Zumwalt Jr., in his capacity as a Veterans Affairs investigator, stated: “I believe that Dr. Vernon Houk … has made it his mission to manipulate and prevent the true facts from being determined.”

The subcommittee questioned Houk himself about his reasons form stopping a study of Vietnam veterans who had been exposed to Agent Orange, the defoliant that contained high levels of dioxin. At a subsequent hearing, the CDC official was grilled over his personal interest in lowering dioxin standards in Georgia at the behest of the paper industry.

A high-ranking public official pilloried by an aggressive congressional inquiry. But a year later, in 1991, the Post-Dispatch failed to mention any of this in a story that used Houk as its main source. “I just didn’t know about it,” says Tom Uhlenbrock, the Post-Dispatch’s environmental reporter. Uhlenbrock’s story — which appeared on the front page of the paper with a banner headline –Houk announced that he had changed his mind about the dangers of dioxin, and now thought the contaminated town of Times Beach should have never been evacuated. Houk had sanctioned the evacuation as a CDC official nearly a decade earlier, which was what made his declaration so newsworthy, Unlenbrock says. The headline for the story read: “Dioxin Scare Now Called Mistake.”

The setting for Houk’s conversion was a conference at the University of Missouri at Columbia hosted by the school’s Environmental Trace Substances Research Center (ETSRC). Armon F. Yanders, who heads the research center, told the RFT that the ETSRC had, over the course of several years, been paid $250,000 by a law firm representing Syntex — the company liable for the Times Beach dioxin cleanup — to conduct soil experiments on behalf of Syntex. Although Yanders was also used as a source in the 1991 Post story, his research center’s financial ties were not mentioned. Yanders has also been paid thousands of dollars to testify on behalf of Syntex in court cases.

According to the Post-Dispatch story, Yanders believes “that dioxin has certain properties that may be useful in fighting some cancers, including breast cancer.
“That was sort of a joke,” Yanders now says. Yanders says it was a reference to a study in which mammary-gland tumors decreased in some rats that were fed dioxin. The humorless fact is that 50,000 American women die of breast cancer each year, according to a report issued by Greenpeace last year. The Greenpeace study showed breast-cancer risks four to 10 times higher in women with high levels of chlorine-based pesticides and other chemicals in their blood.

It could be argued that dioxin, in addition to its known health hazards, has spawned a social disease, an endemic malady that has compromised both science and journalism. Those infected by its subtle but pervasive influence may not even be aware that they themselves are carriers. “We have to realize industry has much more control over setting governmental standards than any environmentalists do,” says Smoger. “The tug-of-war always pushes into industry’s favor.”

At the end of that rope are a wide range of industries facing the prospect of costly retooling, including paper companies that supply newsprint to newspapers. The paper and pulp industry professes to be cleaning up its act, but dioxin effluents are still being released into water sources as a result of the paper-bleaching process.
The most notorious culprit in the creation of dioxin is chlorine, and a chlorine-free environment has become a cause celebre among Greenpeace activists, much to the chagrin of industry. The ubiquitous chemical is commonly used in the manufacture of polyvinyl chlorides (PVCs), a form of plastic. When PVCs are burned in incinerators, they spew dioxin into the atmosphere, and it then moves up the food chain, becoming more concentrated as it goes.

According to the EPA reassessment, there is evidence that dioxin’s effects are related to cumulative exposures. Dioxin also appears to have the ability to interfere with responses that are hormonally controlled. The latency period between the time a person is exposed and the onset of health problems may be many years, which makes it difficult to ascertain the cause. “At this point, we are all swimming around in such a stew of chemicals,” says Costner, “that it is no longer possible by looking at the general population to establish a cause/effect link.”

But, again, the words of the EPA reassessment leave little doubt as to the consequences or how they come about:

“Dioxin exposure from multiple sources may result in a number of bio-chemical and biological effects in both humans and animals, many of which are considered adverse or toxic effects, and some of which occur at very low levels of exposure. A large variety of sources of dioxin have been identified and others may exist.

Because dioxin-like chemicals are persistent and accumulate in biological tissues, particularly in animals, the major route of human exposure is through ingestion of foods containing minute quantities of dioxin-like compounds. This results in widespread exposure of the general population of industrialized countries to dioxin-like compounds.”

The media coverage of the dioxin reassessment emphasized immunological and reproductive disorders that the chemical is now suspected of causing. Studies of women in the vicinity of a 1976 dioxin explosion in Seveso, Italy, for instance, showed they experienced twice as many still births and miscarriages after their exposure, says Greenpeace’s Costner. As for increased levels of cancer among Seveso inhabitants, costner cautions that it is too early to judge. “It only happened in 1976, and you have a 20-to-30 year latency period for cancer. So the exposed population is only now beginning to enter the time frame where you would expect to see cancer,” she says. In The New York Times and Post-Dispatch the threat of cancer is downplayed. Here is what the EPA’s reassessment actually says:

“While the data base for epidemiological studies remains controversial, review of these studies appears to support the position that dioxin increases cancer mortality of several types. The instances of soft-tissue sarcoma is elevated in several of the recent studies. … What emerges is a picture of dioxin as a multi-stage carcinogen in highly exposed populations.”

This year, cancer will kill 538,000 Americans, according to the American Cancer Society. Costner cites an article published in the Journal of the American Medical Association from February of this year that indicates “a white male of the baby boom generation is twice as likely to get cancer as his grandfather was. A white female of that age has about a 50 percent better chance than her grandmother did.” The EPA now admits that at least some of the cancer mortality may be attributed to dioxin exposure, albeit at high levels. So the argument, becomes what should be considered an acceptable level of exposure.

“Zero,” says Costner of Greenpeace. According to the reassessment, “humans are currently exposed to background levels of dioxin-like compounds … more than 500-fold higher than the EPA’s 1985 risk-specific dose.” But an acceptable risk level for dioxin is in constant dispute and has never been clearly established. Just two weeks ago in Detroit, a CDC scientist postulated that dioxin levels in the average American have decreased significantly.

Industry sources make careers out of bolstering or condemning such data. Referring to the EPA reassessment, a spokesman for the Chemical Manufacturers Association says: “The whole document is about 2,000 pages, and this is only one chapter. No conclusions can be drawn from any of this research yet. It is way, way too preliminary.”

Barry Polsky at the American Forest and Paper Association (AF&PA);agrees with his counterparts at the chemical trade group, but he goes a step further. “They (the EPA) haven’t drawn any strong causal connection between dioxin and cancer or other human illnesses. There are a lot of sources of dioxin, not just mill effluent.
Members of the AF&PA;claim they have reduced dioxin emissions by 90 percent since 1988. A press release from the paper association notes that “31 pounds of dioxin are released each year from all sources, of which less than four ounces are released annually from U.S. bleached pulp mills.”

The New York Times
reported last week that 500 pounds of dioxins enter the atmosphere each year. Despite disparate data, dioxin is deadly. Studies have shown guinea pigs are killed by a single dose that weighs less than a billionth of their body weight. Monkeys croak when they are fed 0.016 ounces of dioxin per thousand pounds of food.

The bean counters crank out the numbers, and the public-relations flacks play badminton with them. But it’s far from a picnic, and serious people are keeping score with actuaries. Billions of dollars of potential profits could be won or lost. Billions more could end up being spent on legal liabilities for this scourge.

“`Dioxin’ is a term that is commonly applied to a whole sizable group of chemicals,” says Greenpeace’s Costner. “These chemicals are what are called polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons. They have two or more benzene ring structures in them of which chlorines are substituted. I know that sounds convoluted. I need a blackboard in front of me to make sense of it.”

Costner doesn’t need to draw a picture of other elements in the dioxin puzzle, however. “The government itself has some vested interest in the detoxification of dioxin, because of (its) own liability in cases involving Vietnam War veterans,” she says.

As early as 1948, Monsanto and other companies began manufacturing commercial herbicides that contained dioxins. They would not be outlawed until 1979. Years before that, Monsanto and Dow were among the companies that sold even more potent dioxin-containing herbicides to the military for use in Vietnam. For nine years, from 1961 until 1970, U.S. forces were involved in the aerial spraying of between 15 and 20 million gallons of toxins on South Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. The defoliation campaign was code-named Operation Ranch Hand. its motto — “Only We Can Prevent Forests” — satirized the slogan of the U.S. Forest Service. The herbicide that became known as Agent Orange took its name form the color of the stripe that was painted around each black metal drum.

Before the Vietnam War had concluded, a little of it herbicidal misery returned to Missouri soil. Hoffman-Taff, which was later acquired by Syntex, began producing a component of Agent Orange in 1969 in a building leased from Northeastern Pharmaceutical and Chemical Co. (NEPACCO) in Verona, Mo. At the same facility, NEPACCO made hexachlorophene, an anti-acne medicine that yielded dioxin as a byproduct. Both the zit lotion and the super-weed killer were taken off the market. By then, however, Independent Petrochemical Corp. (IPC) had been contracted to remove residues from the plant’s holding tank. IPC subcontracted Russell Bliss, who mixed the dioxin with waste oil and sprayed it on horse arenas, truck lots trailer parks and the town of Times Beach in the early 1970s.

After more than 20 years, the problem has far from evaporated. Currently there is a burgeoning local environmental movement intent on stopping the dioxin incinerator that has been planned for Times Beach. The EPA, Missouri DNR and Syntex are all involved with that Superfund project.

First published in the Riverfront Times (St. Louis)

–C.D. Stelzer (stlreporter@gmail.com)

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