ONE OF EVERY thousand high-risk Americans could develop cancer from
the toxic chemical dioxin, according to a landmark study the Environmental
Protection Agency is preparing to make official. Even more worrisome, the
study warns, are dioxin's effects on the thyroids and immune systems of
Ten years in the making, EPA's dioxin study is a political hot potato for
the Bush administration.
Issue the study, and the administration angers its allies in the chemical,
paper and other dioxin-producing industries, who will surely face calls for
stricter regulation. Bury the study, and environmental activists will cry
coverup, further damaging the administration's shaky credibility on the mom-
and-apple-pie issue of environmental protection.
How President Bush and EPA administrator Christine Todd Whitman handle this
dilemma is important in its own right.
But their decision will also shed light on the administration's policy
toward the international treaty on persistent organic pollutants, or POPs,
that 122 nations, including the United States, negotiated last year.
The treaty, which calls for eliminating dioxin and other toxics "wherever
feasible," will be signed in May in Stockholm by environmental ministers of
signatory countries. Will Whitman be among them?
There is irony in all this for Bush, for the dioxin study was initiated in
1991 during his father's presidency. What's more, Bush Senior and his EPA
chief, William Reilly, ordered the study at the specific behest of the
chemical industry, which complained that environmentalists' calls for limits
on dioxin were based on hype, not sound science. But now that the study is
near completion, it is unwelcome in corporate boardrooms.
"Industry pushed for this study as a way to stall tougher regulations,"
says Rick Hind of Greenpeace, one of 411 groups that recently wrote Bush,
urging the study's release. "Dioxin has gone from being a `possible' to a
`known' human carcinogen, and the risks of cancer have increased tenfold."
Dioxin first attracted public attention during the Vietnam War; it was the
contaminant in the defoliant Agent Orange. The chemical's reputation worsened
in the 1980s, when it caused the evacuation of the Love Canal neighbors in
upstate New York.
Dioxin is formed whenever chlorinated compounds are burned. It remains
ubiquitous because it is a byproduct of so many industrial processes.
Production of PVC plastic - the plastic used in water pipes and credit cards -
is a leading source of dioxin.
So is the operation of waste incinerators, steel plants and paper mills
that use chlorine as a bleaching agent.
Every person on Earth has dioxin in his system. The chemical lodges in the
fatty tissues of animals that consume contaminated water and plants; it also
accumulates through the food chain. Humans who eat lots of fatty foods or fish
therefore end up with the highest body burdens. Exposure is especially high
for people, often poor or nonwhite or both, living near industrial facilities
(46 percent of the nation's public housing projects are situated within a mile
of toxic factories, according to a University of Texas-Dallas study.)
So, will the EPA study see the light of day? In truth, its contents are no
secret. A working draft is on the agency's Web site, and the media has
reported on it. But the study has no legal standing until the EPA formally
approves it. Taking that step would oblige the EPA to incorporate the study's
findings into its regulations, and therein lies the rub.
Bush and Whitman have records of skepticism toward regulations that
restrict corporations' freedom of action. As governor of New Jersey, Whitman
removed approximately 1,000 chemicals from a "right to know" law that required
companies to inform residents about toxics used in their communities.
Whitman disparaged the law as bureaucratic overkill, claiming it listed
such trivial items as lipstick. But sodium hydrosulfate was also on the list,
and in 1995 it caused an explosion at a factory in the town of Lodi that
killed five workers and caused evacuation of 400 residents.
Criticizing regulation is easy in the abstract, but real people can end up
paying a terrible price for lack of proper regulation. It's terrible and
unnecessary, for the costs of changing production patterns are often
overstated. In Europe, bleaching of paper has been virtually eliminated
without economic pain, an experience that doubtless fueled governments'
enthusiasm for the POPs treaty. Here in the Bay Area, the governments of San
Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley and Marin County have passed resolutions calling
for the elimination of dioxin wherever possible.
Bush and Whitman can score points with voters, who overwhelmingly support
environmental protection - if they reconsider their skepticism of regulation,
release the dioxin study and sign the POPs treaty. The chemical and paper
industries may not be happy, but surely that should matter less than the
health of the American people.
Mark Hertsgaard is the author of "Earth Odyssey: Around the World in Search of Our Environmental Future" (Broadway Books) and a columnist for the Blue Ridge Press syndicate. He lives in San Francisco.
©2001 San Francisco Chronicle