Waiting for the Environmental Protection Agency to protect the public against dioxin is a lot like waiting for Godot. You keep thinking he’s about to show up… and then nothing happens.
But at least he’s fictional.
Dioxin is all too real. EPA’s own timeline of its labors to establish a safety standard for human exposure to dioxins dates back to September 1985 – and actually understates the glacial pace of efforts to reduce people’s exposure to this omnipresent pollutant.
Environmental Working Group wants EPA to wrap up this phase of its deliberations and set a concrete safety standard. That number – technically known as a “reference dose” or safe daily dose — would be a voluntary guideline, not a regulation. But pollution control regulations that carry the force of law can’t be fashioned until the safety standard is nailed down.
Scientists have been researching health dangers associated with dioxin, actually a family of highly toxic industrial byproducts, since 1949. (These chemicals can form naturally, but most of the pollution encountered in the industrial world comes from waste incineration and certain manufacturing processes such as paper bleaching, smelting and pesticide manufacturing.) Dioxin was in the headlines weekly, sometimes daily, back in the 1970s, when discoveries of decades of heedless industrial dumping and a spectacular chemical plant explosion in Seveso, Italy, aroused public outrage. Also, one of the major scandals involving the U.S. military’s use of the potent defoliant Agent Orange during the Vietnam War was that some of the millions of gallons of the stuff had been contaminated with a particularly pernicious member of the dioxin family — 2,3,7,8- tetrachlorodibenzo para dioxin, or TCDD, exposing untold numbers of servicemen and women and civilians to this dangerous chemical.
By 1981, U.S. government scientists had declared that TCDD was “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen.” In 1997, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) used an even stronger and more definitive term, labeling TCDD a “known human carcinogen.” In May 2000, the U.S. government’s National Toxicology Program tried to follow suit, based on its own deliberations over 19 years. A pro-industry group fought that move in court but a federal appeals court rejected its arguments, allowing the U.S. government to embrace the international community’s position that TCDD causes cancer in humans.
But how much dioxin pollution is a realistic danger to human health? Finding a level of exposure at which the risk approaches the vanishing point is the task of the EPA. The agency has been wrestling with this critical but complicated question for close to 30 years. Every step has been marked by a battle with industries whose operations generate dioxin. In 1980s and early 1990s, the paper industry led the resistance. On Oct. 27, 1987, The Washington Post published a story by Michael Weisskopf, headlined Paper Industry Campaign Defused Reaction to Dioxin Contamination, that described the American Paper Institute’s expensive and successful campaign to hobble EPA’s efforts to rein in dioxin pollution from paper mills.
More recently, EPA has been buried under objections from the chlorine and vinyl industries, companies with old, polluting equipment, and proprietors of fouled industrial and military-linked sites that would require expensive cleanups. Even certain communities and politicians have opposed stringent measures out of concern for excessive cleanup costs, job losses or diminished property values.
In May, the EPA took a giant step closer to resolving the debate by releasing a massive scientific report on dioxin, for the first time proposing a specific human safety limit for TCDD of seven-tenths of a picogram — a trillionth of a gram — per kilogram of body weight, per day.
That is an unimaginably small amount. A picogram is a thousandth of a nanogram.
But in fact, according to EWG calculations, EPA would be justified in trying to set the bar even lower. EWG analysis has determined that nine different animal studies conducted between 1973 and 2008 show harm at dioxin levels even lower than the figure EPA has put on the table.
By a number of measures, Americans are significantly overexposed to TCDD and other members of the dioxin family. According to studies cited by the EPA report and reviewed by EWG scientists, the public may be exposed to as much as 1,200 times more dioxin contamination in common foods than the amount EPA considers safe as a cancer risk. Because dioxins are also considered endocrine system-disrupting chemicals, they may pose a particular danger to developing children. Studies that have found breast milk to contain traces of dioxins are especially worrisome. EWG’s analysis calculates that a nursing infant may consume as much as 77 times the amount of dioxin the EPA has defined as harmless to the endocrine and immune systems.
EWG has not recommended that EPA to go back to the drawing board and come up with an even smaller number. That may be advisable someday soon, but at the moment, EWG believes that EPA should get on with it. The review process is tortuous as it is.
This week, the EPA Science Advisory Board meets for three days to consider the EPA report. The document will also be subjected to external “peer review” by independent experts. Groups from industry, public health and environmental causes and private citizens are being invited to weigh in. Once agency officials digest all the commentary and advice, a lively debate will undoubtedly ensue, likely involving the White House, the Defense Department, the Food and Drug Administration and other key agencies.
Cleanups are expensive, no doubt about it. But health care costs are an even bigger drain on the economy. It’s impossible to quantify the intangible personal toll on Americans living with serious disorders triggered by chronic exposure to dioxins. But we’re sure it’s too high, and it has gone on too long.