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#405 - Turning Point For The Chemical Industry, 31-Aug-1994

In St. Louis, Missouri on July 30, Dr. Barry Commoner gave the keynote
address at the Second Citizens' Conference on Dioxin. Here are
excerpts:

...We meet at a crucial TIME in the history of dioxin. I am convinced
that 1994 will be seen as the year in which -- despite every effort of
the chemical industry and its journalistic allies to confuse and
misinform us -- the true dimensions of the ominous threat of dioxin to
human health became known. The profound significance of its diverse
attack on living things has now be- come clear: Dioxin and dioxin-like
substances represent the most perilous chemical threat to the health
and biological integrity of human beings and the environment.

The history of dioxin is a sordid story -- of devastating sickness
inflicted, unawares, on chemical workers; of callous disregard for the
impact of toxic wastes on the public; of denial after denial by the
chemical industry; of the industry's repeated efforts to hide the facts
about dioxin and, when these become known, to distort them. ... We need
to learn what must be done, now, not merely to diminish, but to END --
the menace of dioxin and its many toxic cousins to life.

... On May 26, 1971, 2,000 gallons of what was supposed to be waste oil
were sprayed on the soil in a nearby horse arena [in Times Beach, Mo.].
Three days later the arena was littered with dead birds; four days
later three horses and the ringmaster were sick. By June, 29 horses, 11
cats and four dogs had died; in August the six-year-old daughter of one
of the owners was admitted to St. Louis Children's Hospital with a
severe kidney disorder.

[This led to a decade of scientific study of dioxin, during which it
became clear that dioxin is an inevitable by-product of chlorine
chemistry.] ... The chemist learns to favor the production of a
particular molecule by controlling temperature, pressure and other
conditions and, more precisely, by introducing a catalyst. But the
process is never perfect; some unwanted molecules that happen to be
very stable and resist further transformation will persist -- as waste.
[Dioxin is one of these stable waste products.] ... Toxic waste is not
simply a matter of poor housekeeping or bad management; it is an
INESCAPABLE part of chlorine-based chemical production.

... In 1985 the EPA [U.S. Environmental Protection Agency] issued its
first formal cancer risk assessment of dioxin. ...EPA estimated that
people would be exposed to the one-per-million [cancer] risk if they
lived near soil contaminated at the level of one part per billion. When
soil in Times Beach [Mo.] was found to considerably exceed this level,
the EPA decided to evacuate the town.

[Because controlling dioxin is expensive, since 1985 industry has
maintained relentless pressure on government to relax dioxin standards.
Some animal studies showed dioxin to be an extremely potent toxin in
some species; other studies showed it to be weaker in other species.
EPA established a Workgroup to review the data and conclusions of its
1985 assessment.] ... The Workgroup decided that the "scientifically
sound" thing to do was to average the potency values indicated by the
different theories. Because the high potency value of the 1985 assess-
ment's theory was outweighed by the more numerous low-potency theories,
the average turned out to be 16 times less stringent than the 1985 risk
assessment. ...[However] if the low-potency theories are right, then
the original high-potency theory is wrong, and VICE VERSA -- a
situation that can hardly be corrected by averaging their mutually
contradictory results. [The Workgroup's flawed efforts died somewhere
inside EPA, and the 1985 risk assessment survived.]

... [In 1986 EPA proposed controls on dioxin emissions from the paper
industry. The industry responded by re-evaluating the data upon which
EPA's 1985 risk assessment was based.] And once more, under this new
assault.... the 1985 risk assessment survived.

[In October 1990 EPA and the Chlorine Institute --- an industry group -
- convened a conference at the Banbury Center in Long Island.] The
purpose of the conference was to review new data about how dioxin
caused cancer in order to provide a "scientific" basis for a new risk
assessment. The "new data" were studies that actually went back to the
1970s....

The EPA participants in the Banbury Conference hurried back to
Washington with news that prompted the Administrator, William K.
Reilly, to predict that a new reassessment would in fact reduce the
dioxin risk. [This latest dioxin risk assessment has now been prepared
and will be released September 13.] But we already know what it will
say, thanks to a leak of the report's conclusions a few weeks ago. The
new attempt to downgrade the dioxin hazard, like all the earlier ones,
has failed. But in failing, it has not simply confirmed the important
but narrow result of the 1985 risk assessment that dioxin is an
enormously potent carcinogen. It has also greatly expanded the range
and biological impact of dioxin's effects, at levels of exposure
already experienced by the entire U.S. population.

... Apparently Americans are sufficiently exposed to some very general
source of dioxin to put us all well above the "acceptable" cancer risk
of one in a million, and within range of its numerous other harmful
effects. That source, according to the forthcoming EPA report, is
chiefly food [meat and dairy products]....

Stated more simply, the situation is this: The general spread of dioxin
and dioxin-like chemicals in the U.S. environment has already exposed
the entire population to levels of these extremely toxic substances
that are expected to cause a number of serious health effects. These
include an average risk of cancer of 100 or more per million in the
entire U.S. population -- 100 times greater than the risk standard that
has triggered EPA remedial action, for example at Times Beach.

The EPA document also acknowledges that the newly appreciated hazards
of dioxin go far beyond the risk of cancer... the expected non-cancer
effects include:

** disruption of endocrine hormone systems, especially those related to
sexual development;

** disruption of critical stages of embryonic development, for example
of the nervous system;

** damage to the developing immune system, leading to increased
susceptibility to infectious diseases.

These are INTERGENERATIONAL DEFECTS, they are imprinted for life on the
developing fetus by the effect of dioxin on the mother and sometimes
the father.

...Dioxin and dioxin-like chemicals have become widely known as
"environmental hormones"... [but] There is a crucial molecular
difference between dioxin and hormones. Dioxin is distinctively
characterized by its chlorine atoms, which, when linked to particular
carbon atoms in its molecular structure, give rise to dioxin's powerful
toxic properties. In contrast, no natural hormone is chlorinated.

... [Chlorinated molecules] are rare in living things; only about 600
such substances have been identified, compared with tens of thousands
of different organic substances made by living things that are NOT
chlorinated. Moreover, not a single chlorinated compound has been
identified as natural in mammals. In Gribble's compilation of 611
chlorinated (and other halogenated organic) compounds produced by
living things, there are numerous examples from fungi, higher plants,
algae, sponges, jellyfish, worms, and other marine animals.

... When the first mammals -- or possibly vertebrates -- emerged,
chlorine was abruptly excluded from this new form of life. As a result,
chlorinated organic compounds like dioxin are incom- patible with the
distinctively complex hormonal systems and developmental processes that
are characteristic of vertebrates, especially mammals.

... The industry's chief defense against shutting down the use of
chlorine in chemical manufacturing is that it is essential to the
manufacture of most of its products (true), which are in turn essential
to most other industries and agriculture (not so true). It is true that
synthetic organic chemicals -- plastics, pesticides, detergents and
solvents -- have deeply penetrated the modern world. This was done not
so much by creating new industries as it was by taking over existing
forms of production. After all, we did have food before synthetic
pesticides, and there was furniture, flooring and paint long before
plastics. In fact, as pointed out by one of the leaders in the
development of the petrochemical industry, Lord Beeching, it grow
through a virulent form of industrial imperialism:

..."Instead of producing known products to satisfy existing industrial
needs, it [the petrochemical industry] is, increasingly, producing new
forms of matter which not only replace the materials used by existing
industries, but which cause extension and modification of those
industries.... To an increasing degree it forces existing industries to
adapt themselves to use its products."

I believe that this is where the [chemical] industry is most
vulnerable. The chemical industry is the source of persistent,
dangerously toxic substances that must be eliminated. To meet that
obligation, the industry must change its methods of pro- duction --
and, where necessary, its products -- beginning with the elimination of
chlorine. Of course, the industry will use its enormous wealth and
political power to resist such a far- reaching change. But some of its
equally powerful corporate cus- tomers -- paper mills, electronics
manufacturers, and the food industry -- may be less rigid. Yes, they
have been invaded by the chemical industry's products that they use.
But with those products have come the built-in toxic accompaniments and
the economic liability for their damage.

We now know, for example, that the U.S. population is exposed to dioxin
not so much from the chemical industry's direct emissions, but chiefly
from food that has been contaminated with dioxin entering the food
chain, especially beef and dairy products. These industries, already
suffering from reduced consumption to avoid fat and cholesterol, are
now likely to be hit once more, this time by the dioxin problem. Sooner
or later, to protect their own economic interests--properly encouraged
by grass-roots activists --they will use their own corporate power to
help per- suade the chemical industry to change its ways. Already the
paper industry has begun to make plans for ending chlorine bleaching
processes. There are even whispers from the chemical industry itself
that they have got the message; very quietly, I have heard, their
chemists are looking for ways to take chlorine out of their processes.

These are some of the reasons why we are at a turning point not only in
the history of dioxin, but of the chemical industry itself. What has
brought us to this point, I am convinced, is the environmental movement
-- at its powerful grassroots: the numerous community campaigns against
trash-burning incinerators; the valiant battles against hazardous waste
incinerators in East Liverpool [Ohio] and Jacksonville [Arkansas]; the
struggles at Times Beach [Mo.] and Love Canal [N.Y.]; the campaign for
justice for the veterans exposed to Agent Orange. Let this conference,
here in the place where it all began, be the start of new cam- paigns
and new victories -- for the sake of the environment and the people who
live in it.

Descriptor terms: barry commoner; dioxin; times beach, mo; studies;
dioxin reassessment; cancer; endocrine disrupters; chlorine industry;
chemical industry;