Environmental Health News

What's Working

  • Garden Mosaics projects promote science education while connecting young and old people as they work together in local gardens.
  • Hope Meadows is a planned inter-generational community containing foster and adoptive parents, children, and senior citizens
  • In August 2002, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) Board voted to ban soft drinks from all of the district’s schools

#310 - The N.Y. Times Detoxifies Dioxin (Again), 04-Nov-1992

During August and September U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
released drafts of 8 chapters of its long-awaited report on the dangers
of dioxin. The agency then promptly convened a 4-day meeting of
independent scientists September 22-25 to review and discuss the

The day after the meeting ended, the NEW YORK TIMES reported (Sept. 26,
1992, pg. 9) that "An independent panel of scientists concluded today
that dioxin was not a large-scale cancer threat except to people
exposed to unusually high levels of the toxic compound in chemical
factories and from accidents."

The TIMES said, "The panel based its conclusions about the effects of
dioxin on human health largely on four studies...."

The TIMES story said, "...the risk to average Americans exposed to
dioxin, principally by eating beef, dairy products, chicken and fish,
is lower than previously believed."

The TIMES reported that, "The risks, said several panelists, are
largely confined to chemical workers and people exposed to high levels
of dioxin from industrial accidents. They said the levels of dioxin
ordinarily found in the environment had not been shown to be dangerous
to people."

The TIMES went on, "Scientists have known for a long time that
laboratory animals are apparently much more sensitive to the dioxin
molecule than people for reasons that are not well understood, and
newer studies have shown that trout, salmon, and some species of birds
also are very sensitive."

The TIMES concluded, "In separate interviews, several panelists said
today that they did not consider the levels of dioxin in most
Americans, about 5 parts per trillion in fat, to be an important health

In sum, the NEW YORK TIMES led its readers to believe that a panel of
independent scientists reviewed four studies and concluded, apparently
by consensus, that dioxin is only a danger to the health of heavily-
exposed chemical workers and victims of rare accidents, and even for
them the only danger is cancer; that existing levels of dioxin in the
environment are not dangerous to people; that the risks of dioxin are
lower than previously believed; that laboratory animals and some
wildlife may be at risk but this has little to do with humans because
humans--for reasons unknown--seem to be uniquely unaffected by low
doses of dioxin.

The TIMES put this comforting story on the wire and many U.S.
newspapers picked it up. The result was a nation-wide press blitz
saying dioxin is basically harmless to humans. For example, the DETROIT
NEWS reprinted the TIMES story, then capped it off Sept. 29 with an
editorial,"The End of Dioxin Hysteria?" which concluded, "But the fact
that dioxin has turned out to be something of a non-issue where humans
are concerned suggests the religious zeal with which some
environmentalists are trying to close down the chemical industry
deserves to be greeted with extreme skepticism."

Is this the last word on dioxin? It's not a threat to human health;
levels found in the environment today are of little concern; the risks
used to seem worse than they seem today; and the risks are limited to
cancer among chemical factory employees. Is that what EPA spent 18
months and untold millions of dollars to find out?

It seems not. Other reporters and participants in the four-day meeting-
-including top EPA officials who called the meeting--came away with
views and information almost 180 degrees out of sync with what the NEW
YORK TIMES reported. On October 9, Erich W. Bretthauer, EPA's Assistant
Administrator for Research and Development, sent a memo to EPA chief
William Reilly giving Reilly his own views on what EPA has learned so
far about dioxin. In his memo, Bretthauer made seven points, each of
which was either contradicted, or missed entirely, by the TIMES:

1. To understand the risks of dioxin, we should consider a broad range
of health effects, not just cancer, Bretthauer told Reilly.

2. Dioxin has been observed to cause certain non-cancer effects in
animals by disrupting the body's endocrine system (glands and tissues
that control bodily functions via chemical messengers called hormones).
These endrocrine effects include reproduction, behavior of offspring,
and changes in the immune system. "Some data suggest that these effects
may be occurring in people at body burden levels that can result from
exposures at, or near, current background," Bretthauer told Reilly. In
other words, the amount of dioxin already present in the environment,
and in the bodies of Americans, is at, or close to, levels that, in
animals, cause hormone shifts, reproductive disorders, changes in
behavior, and immune system damage.

3. Recent studies indicate that dioxin causes cancer in humans; these
studies need to be evaluated further and then EPA needs to form a new
official position about the cancer hazard to humans.

4. Additional compounds besides dioxin (for example, some types of
PCBs) have dioxin-like effects and should be included in EPA's
reassessment of the hazards of dioxin.

5. There is insufficient data to develop a model that will allow us to
predict the cancer hazards to humans from low-level exposure to dioxin.
During the next 3 to 5 months, government studies may provide the
needed data.

6. The available data seem to indicate that dioxin will cause cancer in
humans in proportion to the exposure--high doses will cause many
cancers, lower doses will cause fewer cancers, and the only dose that
is risk-free is zero. In other words, the so-called "linear hypothesis"
of cancer causation appears to hold true in the case of dioxin, though
this is not certain.

7. Risks from existing background levels of dioxin in the general
population need to be "carefully considered."

The WALL STREET JOURNAL (Oct. 16, 1992, pg. B9) summarized Bretthauer's
memo this way: "Data reviewed by an independent scientific panel
suggest that the danger from dioxin may be broader and more serious
than previously thought, according to an internal Environmental
Protection Agency memo."

The business journal, ENVIRONMENT REPORTER [ER] (Oct. 2, 1992, pg.
1504), offered its own coverage of the Sept. 22-25 meeting. The basis
of ER's story was an interview with William H. Farland, director of the
EPA Office of Health and Environmental Assessment, the man in charge of
the EPA's reassessment of dioxin. Farland summarized the four-day
meeting by saying dioxin is "a major health threat," and that the draft
report on dioxin is "unlikely to ease public concern over dioxin."

Farland said that "scientists at the recent meeting reported a host of
non-carcinogenic effects at very low dose levels--near background
levels--as well as the ability to cause cancer in humans at high

In sum, EPA's scientific reassessment of dioxin--which is based on
several thousand studies of dioxin--isn't over yet, but so far the
scientific evidence is showing dioxin to be a worse problem than
formerly believed. The reassessment was initiated by EPA chief Reilly
18 months ago in response to complaints by the paper and chlorine
industries, who charged that EPA's regulation of dioxin was too strict
because low doses of dioxin are harmless. These industries argued that
there is a "threshold," an amount of dioxin below which no effects will
occur. EPA's scientific reassessment of dioxin has, so far,
substantiated EPA's original view of dioxin, that it is a potent toxin
for which there is no observable threshold. Furthermore, the
reassessment has added a host of new concerns, which were discussed at
length during the four-day meeting--concerns about disruption of the
reproductive system, harm to the immune system, and behavioral changes
in offspring of dioxin-exposed parents.

The really big news from the meeting was the revelation that these
endrocrine-system effects in animals are observable at body burdens
similar to the body burdens in Americans today. If this view is upheld
in the next few weeks as scientists continue to review the available
data, it will mean that any addition of dioxin to the environment will
be adding to an already-unacceptable situation. This would provide a
scientific foundation for a demand that "zero discharge" be adopted as
the basis for control of dioxin. William Farland nearly said as much in
his interview with ER: "We have to be very cautious about any additions
of dioxin to the environment. We must be very concerned about these
high background levels of dioxin and what they may mean for human

Industries that emit dioxin into the environment--paper producers,
waste incinerators, metal smelters, and herbicide producers and users--
are feeling tremendous pressure to curtail emissions, and the pressure
seems likely to increase.

Newspapers, of course, are dependent upon paper for their existence and
they have a material interest in keeping paper prices low. According to
the WALL STREET JOURNAL, the paper industry has already spent over a
billion dollars trying to control dioxin.

The NEW YORK TIMES, which has a history of odd reporting on dioxin (see
RHWN #248, #249, #275), received at least three letters to the editor
complaining about its misleading coverage of the September meeting--two
of them from scientists who participated in the meeting and who
objected strongly to the TIMES's reporting. The TIMES also received a
letter from a consultant to the incineration industry who said it was
"comforting" to learn that the dioxin found now in the bodies of
Americans is "less toxic than previously assumed." The TIMES did not
print either of the letters from the scientists but did print the
letter from the incineration consultant, who argued that automobiles
are the leading source of dioxin. This point of view, which is no doubt
comforting to the incineration industry, and to the paper and newspaper
industries, is almost certainly wrong. We will provide more details
next week.

--Peter Montague


Descriptor terms: epa; dioxin; incineration; health; pulp and paper
industry; dioxin reassessment; birth defects; new york times;
carcinogens; cancer; wall street journal; automobiles;