Tiny Town Demands Justice in Dioxin Poisoning

BOSTON -- A U.S. health agency has made research subjects of people in tiny Mossville, Louisiana by repeatedly monitoring dangerously high levels of dioxin in their blood while doing nothing to get the community out of harm's way, residents say.

Further, the agency failed to release important test results for five years, and made it difficult for the community to obtain the actual data, say residents and their lawyers.

"The air is staggering," said resident Haki Vincent. "Come stay at my place and you will see firsthand that the air and water is repulsive."

Mossville is closed in by 14 chemical factories, including Petroleum giant Conaco Phillips and Georgia Gulf, a vinyl products manufacturer that had revenues of 2.4 billion dollars in 2006, according to the company.

Dioxin compounds are a byproduct of petroleum processing and vinyl manufacturing and residents in Mossville say the factories are releasing amounts into the air that are making them sick.

Studies show the community suffers from high rates of cancer, upper respiratory problems and reproductive issues, and residents say dioxin pollution is the cause.

Residents want an end to the pollution and want to be moved away from the factories.

"Here in this community, people are being inundated with pollution and it is killing us," said Shirley Johnson, a Mossville resident.

The U.S. health agency, ATSDR, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, tested the blood of 28 Mossville residents in 1999 and found dioxin at levels two to three times higher than what is considered normal.

But the agency offered no explanation for the high dioxin levels and failed to mention the factories as a possible source.

ATSDR agents left Mossville, and returned in 2001 and re-tested 22 people. It found that average dioxin levels had dropped slightly but were still two to three times higher than normal.

This same year, a division of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found levels of the dioxin compound vinyl chloride in the air in Mossville at concentrations 100 times what is permitted by federal law, and ethylene dichloride at 20 times.

But again ATSDR failed to consider that the local factories could be responsible for the dioxin in the blood of people in Mossville.

"The source of dioxin exposures in the Mossville residents is not known," the 2001 report says.

The ATSDR did not release the 2001 results until 2006, with no explanation.

"I'm not going to tell you it was the quickest thing we've ever done. It is what it is," Steve Dearwent, an epidemiologist who led the study, told IPS.

"This can only be called callous indifference of agencies to the fact that people in Mossville are sick and dying as a result of toxins being dumped on them," said Nathalie Walker, a lawyer with Advocates for Environmental Human Rights, an environmental group that is representing Mossville.

The historically black community founded in the late 1700s is unincorporated and has had no voting rights in the state and no power to control what businesses operate within its borders. Some factories moved to within 50 feet of people's homes.

"I live in a community that is dying. Schools are gone. Most of the light and happiness of this community doesn't really exist anymore," said resident Delma Bennett. As a project, he photographs many people in the community who use breathing machines.

The ATSDR does not believe that the dioxin levels seen in people in Mossville are high enough to cause health problems, said Dearwent, who was permitted to speak with a reporter only if a U.S. agency communications expert listened in on the conversation.

Dearwent says that in Mossville, older people had the highest levels of dioxin in their blood, and that younger people had nearly normal levels. This points to previous exposures to dioxin, and a reasonable suspect is typical U.S. store-bought food, all of which is contaminated with some amount of dioxin.

"It's perceived that all the dioxin exposure is related to industry. Our interpretation is that it is related to their diet," Dearwent said. However, tests did not show high amounts of dioxin in local Mossville food, he acknowledged.

Before the health agency experts left Mossville in 2001, they advised residents to change their diets, Dearwent said.

There is no evidence that the factories are releasing dioxin that is settling on the community, he said.

"If there is an exorbitant amount of dioxin being released it would show up in the soil, the dust and the people. Especially the younger people," and ATSDR results did not show this, he said.

This interpretation differs markedly from that of independent scientist Wilma Subra, hired by the environmental organisation to do an independent analysis of any dioxin pollution in Mossville.

Subra found dioxin in nearby soil to be 2 to 230 times what the EPA considers acceptable.

Subra also compared the ATSDR data about dioxin in the blood of Mossville residents to the type of dioxin compounds actually being emitted by the five vinyl factories in the town.

The analysis found an exact match between the specific dioxin compounds being released by the factories and the compounds found in the blood, Subra said. Also, the compounds showed up in the blood in the same percentage as those being released by the factories.

"This is inappropriate exposure to the community," Subra said.

Louisiana is known for its long history of gross environmental problems and the situation in Mossville reflects that history, Walker said.

"The politics have not changed. We have a lot of work to do," she said.

"What we're up against is the control of corporations in Louisiana. They have a huge lobbying body and exert a huge influence," said Monique Harden, an attorney with the environmental organisation. Some factories have increased their emissions recently, she said.

Georgia Gulf says the industries in Mossville have improved their environmental records.

"Industry in Louisiana has reduced total [reportable] emissions by more than 80 percent since 1987," Georgia Gulf spokesman Will Hinson said in a statement to IPS.

In 2005, a local Mossville environmental group filed a petition against the U.S. government with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organisation of American States, on the grounds that Mossville's environmental human rights are being violated. The group is waiting for a response from the U.S. State Department, Walker said.

On Wednesday, Mossville residents traveled to Washington to testify before a Senate committee, to raise questions about the actions of ATSDR and the EPA and ask for help in ending pollution in Mossville.

Change is long past due, said resident David Prince. "Fourteen facilities are just spewing these poisons and nothing has been done. When will it be our turn?"

Copyright (c) 2007 IPS-Inter Press Service

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