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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)


Air Date: Week of

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CURWOOD: The Environmental Protection Agency is nearing the end of a long and controversial process to assess the health risks of dioxins. Dioxins are the inadvertent byproducts of industrial processes, such as paper bleaching, steel manufacturing, and waste incineration. The chemicals released settle in the environment, work their way up the food chain, and concentrate in body fats. All of us now have dioxins in our bodies. They are highly toxic in even small amounts, and there is growing concern about dioxin's adverse health effects. Joining me is Living on Earth political observer Mark Hertsgaard. Mark, as I recall, the EPA began its dioxin assessment back in 1991. We've seen draft reports since then, but this is the same process, right? We've never really seen a final report.

HERTSGAARD: That's exactly right, Steve. It's been delayed time and time again, and there are layers of ironies to this, especially for President Bush. It was his father, President Bush the first, who initially ordered this study in 1991. Not only that, but he did so at the specific behest of the chemical industry. Now why, you ask, would the chemical industry want to do that? Because they were getting a lot of pressure to regulate dioxin, after the scandals around Agent Orange, the defoliant used in Vietnam; Love Canal, the town up in New York State that was evacuated because of dioxin pollution. So, there were calls for regulation. The industry said, "Wait a minute, you can't regulate us, this is all anecdotal. We need a study before we can really understand what dioxin is doing." And now, ten years later, that study is about to come out, and it appears that the industry doesn't really want to see it, because it's not finding what industry had hoped.

CURWOOD: What does this new study say, then?

HERTSGAARD: Well, that's a very complex question, Steve, because this is a study that has been changing over time. And part of that is the science, but a lot of that is the politics. You know, of course, that when EPA does a study it has to be peer-reviewed by outside scientists who function through something called the Science Advisory Board. In the case of dioxin, there is a specific subcommittee, and that panel of 21 scientists is looking over EPA's findings on this. Six of those 21 scientists have been funded by the chemical industry, and they tend to be emphasizing the uncertainties in the data and arguing for a different interpretation. So that last June, when the first draft report came out, the findings said that dioxin had graduated, if you will, to a known human carcinogen, no longer potential but known. And there was a chance of cancer for one out of 100 high-risk Americans. By November of last year that number had slipped to one out of 1,000. And now, here in the spring, the current draft drops that calculation entirely and retreats from calling dioxin a known human carcinogen. Now they're trying to say that it will be a potential carcinogen. So, it's changing all the time.

CURWOOD: Now, what does it say about the non-cancer effects? I remember, I think it was the 1995 draft, where the EPA suggested that virtually everyone in this country has enough dioxin in his or her body to compromise their immune systems. What does the study now say about such effects?

HERTSGAARD: Well, indeed, Steve, you're quite right, that the non-cancer risks are, by far, the most worrisome about this. I interviewed Dr. Richard Clapp, who's a Boston University epidemiologist who's a member of the Science Advisory Board. And he said that what we're really worried about here are the effects on the thyroid and immunity systems of young children, birth defects, and reproductive problems. There's a frankly quite terrifying study out of Italy right now; there was a terrible explosion of dioxin there in 1976. The young children who were exposed to that are now having children of their own, and they're finding that those who had the highest exposures to dioxin are having twice as many girl babies as boy babies. The speculation is that somehow the dioxin has gotten in there and caused the male fetuses to spontaneously abort. So, it's really birth defects that are far more important than cancer in these health risks.

CURWOOD: Okay, Mark. What do you think is going to happen here? Is this study by the EPA on dioxin going to be released or not, do you think?

HERTSGAARD: I think it will eventually be released, if only because so much attention has been paid to it and so much science has gone into it. The question is, what will it say when it's finally released? So, Bush has a political problem here. If he releases the study, his chemical industry allies, who have put a lot of money into his campaign, are going to be unhappy. And on the other hand, if he blocks it, the activists are going to cry cover-up.

CURWOOD: Mark, what does this report release mean, really? I mean, right now, we could go over to the Internet and look up the document on the EPA website. It's available to anybody in the public. What does it mean to release it?

HERTSGAARD: Some cover-up, right? Well, there's a distinction there, Steve. Yes, anybody can go to EPA and look at the draft report. The importance here, though, is that that study has no legal standing until EPA formally approves it. And once EPA formally approves it, then EPA is obliged to set health regulations in that effect, and that's what scares industry.

CURWOOD: One more thing, Mark. The United States has committed itself to signing an international treaty that calls for the phase-out of dioxin. How does the Bush administration reconcile that?

HERTSGAARD: You're talking about the POPs treaty, the Persistent Organic Pollutants treaty, that the Clinton administration signed last year. It calls for, not only the phase-out of dioxin wherever feasible but also. a number of other chemicals, including DDT, PCBs, and so forth. In Stockholm, in May, the POPs treaty will be signed by the environmental ministers of 122 nations, and, at this point, it is very much an open question as to whether EPA administrator Christie Whitman will be among them. We'll just have to wait and see.

CURWOOD: Mark Hertsgaard is Living on Earth's political observer. Always a pleasure, Mark.

HERTSGAARD: Thank you, Steve.

(Music up and under: His Name Is Alive, "Across Every Fjord")

CURWOOD: Just ahead: The voice of California's last known aboriginal. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

Now this environmental health update with Diane Toomey.



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