Environmentalists’ Latest Catalog of "Horrors" on Dioxin

By Michael Gough and Angela Logomasini
November 18, 1999

The Center for Health, Environment and Justice recently released its latest report claiming that all Americans are "at serious risk from the daily intake of dioxin in food." Here we go again. Adding nothing new to the research, this "study" contributes to a large and growing collection of dangerous environmentalist hype.

The Center’s recent report simply repeats environmentalists’ calls for all sorts of regulatory controls on incineration, certain plastics, and emissions from pulp and paper mills. They condemn these activities because they release a group of related chemicals generically referred to as dioxin.

Even if we followed environmentalists' calls, dioxin would remain in the environment anyway because nature emits significant amounts through such things as forest fires and other natural activities. Some dioxin eventually ends up in our food supply, we consume it, and some remains in our body fat. Fortunately, such low-level exposure to dioxin has never been shown to cause any human health effect. At very high exposure levels, dioxin has only been proven to cause chloracne, a temporary skin disorder. From all reports the amounts of dioxin in our environment and food has been decreasing. Given that no health effects have been associated with past exposures to higher concentrations, there's certainly no need for alarm now.

Yet environmental and "public interest" groups regularly issue reports on dioxin’s "dire" risks. Greenpeace -- a contributor to the Center’s report -- produces these "studies" on a regular basis in its effort to ban chlorine, of which dioxin is a byproduct. This time, the charge is led by the Center’s Lois Gibbs, who became an activist from her experience as a resident of the community surrounding the now famous "Love Canal" toxic waste site. Her report is exactly what’s expected from her Who’s Who list of scientists and physicians who have built careers around warnings and fear-mongering about the dangers of dioxins. Gibbs and her co-contributors point with alarm at reports that dioxin causes just about every imaginable disease in one laboratory animal or another. They don’t highlight the fact that impacts between species vary dramatically and such effects don’t necessarily translate to human exposures.

The authors also describe studies of humans that they interpret to indicate that dioxin causes various illnesses and death. Yet these studies -- which are often conflicting and chock-full of confounding factors -- do not prove cause-and-effect relationships and do not represent any sort of scientific consensus.

Remarkably, the human studies with the best information about exposures, and in which exposures are highest, are missing from the catalog of horrors. The authors rely, instead, upon studies in which exposures are based on people’s recall or "reconstructions" of exposure that have been shown again and again to be incorrect. The overwhelming conclusion from human studies in which dioxin exposures are known and measured is that dioxin has not caused cancer, birth defects, infertility, neurological disorders, or behavioral problems.

Another key problem is that Gibbs’s study relies in large part on an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) draft report on dioxins. In 1994, EPA released this six-years-in-the-making, $6 million, 2,000 page draft report. The EPA’s inaction to finalize this report underlines the emptiness of Gibbs’s claims. In May 1995, the EPA’s Science Advisory Board (SAB), a panel of scientists -- including two of the reviewers of Gibbs’ report, Richard Clapp and David Ozonoff -- reviewed EPA’s dioxin report. The SAB met in open session, in front of the public and press, and received comments from all interested parties.

The SAB blasted the EPA for overstating the risks from dioxin, and rejected the EPA's conclusions. An EPA official said that a revised report would be available in 6 months. Four and one-half years have passed, and no revision has appeared.

During the four and one-half years, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) have hosted meetings about dioxin. IARC concluded that the available evidence supports the conclusion that dioxin is a human carcinogen, and WHO decided that low exposures to dioxin could cause other human diseases. IARC and WHO considered much of the same evidence that was considered by the SAB, and they came to different conclusions. Importantly, the IARC and WHO committees met behind closed doors, no one knows what went on there, and no one knows what evidence they deigned to consider and what they ignored.

The best science is done in the open. Until the SAB or some other open scientific forum validates the underlying research, compilations of such Gibbs’ organization -- or any other -- is better considered as biased speculation rather than objective science.

Dr. Michael Gough, Ph.D., author of Dioxin, Agent Orange, served as a federal dioxin expert at Office of Technology Assessment and participated in the EPA Science Advisory Board dioxin study review. Angela Logomasini is Director of Risk and Environmental Policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

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