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A Scoop of Debunkey Monkey, Please

By Steven Milloy
Copyright 2000 Fox News
July 8, 2000, FoxNews.com

The Environmental Protection Agency says the much-ballyhooed environmental contaminant dioxin is 10 times more dangerous than previously thought. Environmental activists already have begun a food scare campaign centered on dioxin. But amidst this eco-terrorism, the long-running and costly health scare over the dreaded dioxin is finally debunked — courtesy of ice cream maker, Ben & Jerry’s.

Ubiquitous in the environment, dioxin is a by-product of many industrial processes (e.g., chemical manufacturing and incineration), consumer activities (e.g., automobile tailpipe exhaust and fireplace wood-burning) and natural processes (forest fires and volcanic eruptions).

Over the last 25 years dioxin has been portrayed by environmental activists as “the most toxic substance known to man.” Dioxin was the contaminant of concern at the infamous Love Canal and Times Beach environmental “disasters” and in the Vietnam-era defoliant Agent Orange.

The EPA has been “reassessing” the alleged hazards of dioxin for almost 10 years. The agency’s 1994 effort to label dioxin as a “known human carcinogen” was rejected by its independent science advisers. Back from the drawing board this June, the EPA urges dioxin be labeled as even a more potent human carcinogen.

Environmental activists extrapolating from the EPA’s report claim 1 of every 14 cancers is caused by the dioxin in our bodies and from unavoidable daily exposures through food and the environment. Allegedly, dioxin is causing a variety of developmental, behavioral, and immune problems in children.

Following the EPA’s announcement of its tentative conclusions, the environmental activist group Center for Health, Environment and Justice placed a full-page advertisement in The New York Times picturing a breakfast and pointing to all the foods containing dioxin, including an omelet’s eggs and cheese, bacon, sausage, cream, milk and butter. The ad states that dioxin is “the most toxic man-made substance on earth... And you had some for breakfast. And you’ll have some for lunch. And for dinner...”

Scary stuff, certainly. And what’s a consumer to do? The only health effect that scientists agree dioxin may cause is severe but temporary acne from very high exposures — as occurred in some of the population surrounding a chemical facility in Seveso, Italy that exploded in 1976. Still, the EPA and the environmentalists press their case that dioxin is far more dangerous.

That’s where Ben & Jerry’s ice cream comes to the rescue.

As I was enjoying some Ben & Jerry’s ice cream at one of their “scoop shops” last summer, I noticed a Ben & Jerry’s marketing brochure titled “Our Thoughts on Dioxin.” The brochure stated, “Dioxin is known to cause cancer, genetic and reproductive defects and learning disabilities... The only safe level of dioxin exposure is no exposure at all.” Knowing that dioxin is in virtually all food, Dr. Michael Gough and I put Ben & Jerry’s ice cream to the test. Gough is a former government scientist who chaired the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services advisory panel on the effects of dioxin-contaminated Agent Orange on U.S. Air Force personnel in Vietnam and served as one of EPA’s science advisers in the 1994 review of dioxin.

We measured the level of dioxin in a sample of Ben & Jerry’s “World’s Best Vanilla” ice cream. We presented the results at the Dioxin 2000 scientific conference held this week in Monterrey, California.

Two independent laboratories using different methodologies reported a single serving of the ice cream contained about 200 times the level of dioxin the EPA says is safe — according to the existing EPA standard. Under the new EPA standard, a serving of Ben & Jerry’s would exceed the EPA’s safe level by a whopping 2,000 times. The level would be about 7,400 times what the EPA says is safe for a 40-pound child.

If dioxin is so dangerous — as Ben & Jerry’s and Greenpeace, the ice cream-maker’s science adviser, seem to think it is — then how can Ben & Jerry’s sell its ice cream? Doesn’t the company care about “the children?” — a segment of the population continually exploited to promote the political and social agendas of the EPA and environmental activists.

The answer, of course, is that the low-levels of dioxin in our food and the environment are not dangerous.

The story gets better.

The EPA and a California-based activist group, Communities for a Better Environment, are attacking a San Francisco-area gasoline refinery operated by the Tosco Corp for its discharges of dioxin into San Francisco Bay. Tosco’s wastewater is permitted by the EPA to contain 0.14 trillionths of a gram of dioxin per liter. Last November, the EPA moved to reduce this level to zero.

But based on our testing, a single serving of Ben & Jerry’s contains about 2,285 times more dioxin than an 8-ounce “serving” of gasoline refinery wastewater at the permitted level.

None of this is to say that Ben & Jerry’s ice cream is dangerous. But here’s the conundrum for the pushers of dioxin hysteria, including their ally and financial backer Ben & Jerry’s.

If dioxin was so dangerous, it is unlikely that Ben & Jerry’s would be selling ice cream. Certainly, an appropriate new flavor would be “Tasty Toxics.”

But since Ben & Jerry’s intends to continue selling its “dioxin-laden” ice cream, that can only mean that dioxin is not dangerous — in which case an appropriate new flavor might be “World’s Best Hypocrisy.”

Despite our tests, the Greens and others will likely persist in fearmongering about dioxin. Why? The answer is simple — politics and money.

Promoting the dioxin scare is an effective fund-raising strategy for environmental activists. Forcing lower emissions of dioxin on industry provides the EPA with greater regulatory power. Vietnam veterans have already bullied the federal government into compensating them for a variety of illnesses allegedly due to Agent Orange. Now they want a monument to supposed “casualties” of Agent Orange.

Researchers have enjoyed over $1 billion in federal funds over the last 20 years. University of Texas researcher Arnold Schecter, who also has worked with the activists at the Environmental Defense Fund, wants money to investigate alleged Agent Orange-associated health effects among the Vietnamese population. Conceivably, Vietnam may be working through U.S. environmental activists to extort “compensation” from the U.S.

Ben & Jerry’s isn’t the only business trying to exploit the dioxin scare for profit. Two firms, Toronto-based Bio Business International and a Denver-based Natracare LLC, are marketing dioxin-free tampons in the midst of an “anonymously” started e-mail scare campaign that even the Food and Drug Administration has decried as a hoax.

There are too many vested interests in dioxin-mania to expect it to stop any time soon. But whenever it raises its head, all you need do is enjoy a scoop of Mike & Steve’s Debunkey Monkey.

Steven Milloy is a biostatistician, lawyer, adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute and publisher of JunkScience.com.