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#248 - A Tale Of Science And Industry, 27-Aug-1991

For the last several years two debates have been swirling around the
notorious chemical dioxin. One debate has engaged real scientists in
the question, How dangerous is dioxin to humans and to wildlife? The
second debate has occurred within industries that release dioxin into
the environment and so will be directly affected by the outcome of the
science debate.

According to CHEMISTRY & INDUSTRY magazine (Feb. 18, 1991, pg. 112) the
chlor-alkali industry (which produces chlorine, the use of which by
many other industries creates dioxin) "has taken an active interest in
the course of the scientific debate." In fact, the Chlorine Institute--
a trade association--is coordinating a "public outreach program" to
"capitalise [sic] on the outcome of a recent Banbury conference on
dioxin."

Could such a "public outreach program" have any effect? The NEW YORK
TIMES took a most unusual step August 15, 1991, when it announced on
page one that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was
beginning a year-long review to develop "a new formal opinion on the
risks of dioxin." The TIMES often reports that studies have been
completed, but it rarely reports that studies have been begun.
Furthermore, SCIENCE magazine had reported May 17, 1991 (pg. 911) that
"(EPA) administrator William Reilly has launched a major new effort to
reassess the toxicity" of dioxin--so the TIMES's August 15th news was
three months old.

In the TIMES's August 15th story, EPA Administrator Reilly not only
announced that his agency was undertaking a year-long review of dioxin
toxicity, he also took the unusual step of suggesting to the TIMES how
the study would come out: "I don't want to prejudge the issue, but we
are seeing new information on dioxin that suggests a lower risk
assessment for dioxin should be applied," Mr. Reilly told the TIMES.
The next day the TIMES ran an editorial praising federal officials for
"sensibly considering new evidence that could lead to relaxation of the
current strict and costly regulatory standards [for dioxin]." And three
days later the TIMES ran a second front-page story which began,
"Dioxin, once thought of as the most toxic chemical known, does not
deserve that reputation, according to many scientists." The TIMES did
not name any of the "many scientists."

What "new information" about dioxin has EPA Administrator Reilly found?
According to SCIENCE May 17th, the "new information" is a "description
[given to Mr. Reilly by two EPA scientists] of a meeting last November
at the Banbury Center at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory that Reilly says
made the most compelling case for change [in EPA standards for
dioxin]."

SCIENCE had written its own description of the Banbury Conference Feb.
8, 1991 (pg. 624): Science said 38 dioxin researchers from the U.S. and
Europe met at Banbury and "reached an agreement that surprised almost
everyone." SCIENCE went on to say, "And this unlikely agreement on how
dioxin works at the molecular level--and some hurried calculations
scribbled on a blackboard--could force a dramatic change in how the
federal government assesses the risk of this and similar carcinogens
[cancer-causing chemicals]."

However, two weeks later--February 22, 1991--SCIENCE reported something
quite different about the Banbury meeting ("Flap Erupts Over Dioxin
Meeting," pg. 866), revealing that the meeting had been sponsored by
the Chlorine Institute and that the Institute had hired a public
relations firm to circulate a summary of the meeting claiming a
"consensus" had been reached when in fact nothing of the kind had
happened. For example, one letter, from a PR firm to the North Carolina
Environmental Management Commission, said, "The Banbury Conference was
organized for the express purpose of developing a scientific consensus
concerning a biological basis for risk assessment.... They were able to
achieve consensus."

However, independent scientists who had attended the Banbury meeting
dispute this view. For example, according to SCIENCE, Dr. Ellen
Silbergeld of the University of Maryland and "a number of other
participants" at the conference felt "manipulated and misused."
Silbergeld sent a letter to the Banbury Center's director saying, "I am
in fact rather astounded by such a product from a Banbury
Conference.... The press releases and statements imply that a major
focus of the conference was a discussion of the regulatory risk
assessments that have been applied to dioxins; this was not the focus
of this meeting." "I did not expect to be manipulated by industry and
government spokespeople (who are not dioxin researchers, incidentally)
to be made into a supporter of their political views on dioxin and risk
assessment," Silbergeld said.

According to SCIENCE, the Chlorine Institute initiated the Banbury
Conference and paid for half of it. Science quoted The Chlorine
Institute's head of communications, saying the Institute believed the
meeting could be "beneficial to our interests, particularly our
interest in the paper industry." The use of chlorine in industrial
processes often leads to the creation of dioxin as a by-product; the
paper industry is under great pressure to reduce its dioxin emissions.
For example, the newsletter ENVIRONMENT WEEK reported Feb. 14, 1991:

"A $1 million punitive damages award by a Mississippi jury last October
against Georgia Pacific [paper company] for alleged dioxin pollution of
the Leaf River has touched off a stampede of similar suits against
paper mills in Mississippi, Tennessee and several other states. The
legal actions, which involve thousands of plaintiffs and billions of
dollars in damage claims against major paper companies, have begun to
resemble the avalanche of legal problems that hit the asbestos industry
in the 1980s."

Enormous dioxin liabilities don't stop with the paper industry. On July
10, 1991, a Missouri jury awarded $1.5 million to the family of Alvin
J. Overmann, a St. Louis trucker who died of cancer; his workplace had
been contaminated by dioxin. Several hundred similar lawsuits are
pending in the Missouri courts now as a result of the contamination of
the town of Times Beach.

Why might the NEW YORK TIMES participate in a public relations campaign
to promote the view that dioxin is less dangerous than previously
believed? James Ledbetter, a media columnist for New York's VILLAGE
VOICE said Aug. 27 (pg. 8) said, "For some reason, August is dioxin
revisionism month.... Once again, the chemical industry is trying to
bamboozle federal regulators and the public, with the eager cooperation
of the mainstream press," he said, citing the TIMES. Ledbetter
suggested that perhaps the TIMES's "industrial-strength enthusiasm over
eliminating 'strict and costly' standards can be traced to the fact
that the New York Times Company has an 80 per cent interest in a Maine
paper mill, and a 49 per cent interest in three Canadian paper mills.
Indeed, on August 12, just four days before [the Times's] editorial
ran, two groups of Canadian Indians filed suit against Kimberly Clark
and the TIMES Company for $1.3 billion (Canadian), charging that one of
the mills has polluted three rivers with dioxin and other toxins,"
Ledbetter said.

A two-day Citizens' Conference on Dioxin has been organized by an
international group of scientists and researchers. It will be held
Sept. 21-22 at the Omni Europa Hotel in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

The first day ("Defining the Problems") will feature three sessions:
(1) A Lay Person's Guide to Dioxins and Related Compounds; (2) A Status
Report on Dioxin's Impact on Human Health and the Environment; and (3)
Fraud and Manipulation in Dioxin Studies.

The second day will feature "Solutions Promoted by Citizens": (1) Clean
Production, Waste Reduction and Zero Discharge; (2) Getting the
Chlorine Out of the Paper Industry; and (3) Banning Incineration. To
attend, phone Paul or Ellen Connett in Canton, NY: (315) 379-9200. Fax:
(315) 3790448. More on this important event next week.

--Peter Montague

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Descriptor terms: dioxin; health effects; chemistry & industry;
studies; chlorine; banbury conference; new york times; epa; science
magazine; william reilly; regulation; standards; chlorine institute;
north carolina environmental management commission; risk assessment;
industrial waste; fines; leaf river, ms; ms; tn; georgia-pacific;
paper; liability; mo; times beach, mo; chemical industry; james
ledbetter; citizens conference on dioxin; nc; paul connett; zero
discharge; waste reduction; incineration;