Dioxin, Dow and



The Spin-doctoring of Dioxins,
by Dr George Carlo and the Chlorine Institute

[A collation of material from a number of sources]

The Wall Street Journal on February 20 1992 carried a front page article about the way the paper and chlorine industries waged a two-year campaign to confuse the world's media about the toxicity of dioxin. The paper industry, uses 15% of all the chemical industry's chlorine and dioxin is often accidentally released from paper mills. The other major environmental source of dioxin is from suburban incineration of waste.

The article,"How Two Industries Created a Fresh Spin on the Dioxin Debate", by Jeff Bailey, exposed a campaign by the Chlorine Institute under guidance from the the American Paper Institute (API), to mock up scientific evidence that dioxin was relatively safe.

There had been an original study released in 1978 which suggested that dioxins were extremely harmful. This finding came from research which was actually conducted by the Dow Chemical Co. itself (they produce more chemicals with dioxin contamination than any other company). Dow's own resident pathologist, Richard Kociba had spiked the food of one group of laboratory rats (in a total of 485) with dioxin, and found that doses as low as a few billionths of a gram each day led to tumors.

Nothing much happened for nearly 12 years about this finding, but then the Agent Orange problem blew up during the Vietnam War.

Agent Orange was a powerful herbicide made by Dow Chemical (a combination of 245-T and 24-D) which was sprayed over enormous areas of country in Vietnam to destroy protective folliage. The Army bought the chemical in bulk at a low price, and therefore it was cheaply made and substantially contaminated with dioxin. Kids in Vietnam began to get sick, and Vietnam Vets also reported health problems long after they had returned home to the USA and Australia. There was some suggestion that the effects carried over into the next generation, with problems being experienced from birth [which suggests it mutates the stem cells of the testis].

Dioxins in general, and particularly those found in Agent Orange, came under attack -- even by otherwise 'conservative' groups. The publicity meant that many environmental activists became aware of the dangers of dioxin contamination, and this was known to be a problem in the effluent of paper mills.

So in March, 1990 the paper industry (API) hired five pathologists and installed them in its Maryland Laboratory to check the old Dow Corning research. For two days they 'reviewed' Dr. Kociba's 12-year-old rat slides under a microscope, with each of the five pathologists voting on each slide. They had to decide: did it show signs of "malignant" cancer, or were the cells just showing "benign" tumors.

You'll undoubtedly be amazed to find that they saw, on average, 50% fewer cancer tumors than Dr. Kociba. However one pathologist, Robert A. Squire, told the WSJ that "There wasn't much unanimity. This was an uncertain finding."

But public relations doesn't deal in uncertainties.

So based on this new evidence, the Paper Insitute wrote to:

  • the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA),
  • to the science adviser of President Bush's, and
  • to William Reilly, chief of Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
stating that this new evidence showed that the risks of adverse health effects from dioxin has been overstated.

Within days, the Washington Post was carrying a headlined story, "Scientists Temper Views on Cancer-Causing Potential of Dioxin" by Malcolm Gladwell, who said, "Dioxin--the chemical that forced the evacuation of Love Canal, sparked a wave of lawsuits over Agent Orange and became notorious as the most potent carcinogen ever tested -- may be far less dangerous than previously imagined."

"Enough experts have joined the revisionist chorus that some scientists consider a softening of the government's stance toward the chemical inevitable." They included quotes from four scientists, three of whom were paid consultants to the paper industry.

Banbury Conference

The next spin imparted to this story by the Chlorine Institute came when they arranged for three dozen of the world's foremost dioxin experts to attend a special conference on the subject being run at the Banbury Center on Long Island in October, 1990."

The WSJ reports that "Also present was George L. Carlo, a scientist, but not widely regarded as a dioxin expert...." [He's actually an administrator/epidemiologist].

Dr. George Lucier of the National Institutes of Environmental Health Sciences told the WSJ reporter, who asks rhetorically in the article: "Why was Carlo there? "Carlo is not a scientist with a long history of dioxin credentials,"

Though described as a 'conference participant' by the Chlorine Institute, he was actually the industry's $150-an-hour observer. Based on his account of what transpired in the discussion, the institute would later circulate reports that the scientists had reached an important consensus...."

What the Chlorine Institute circulated widely to journalists and to state regulatory officials, was the claim that the scientists at Banbury had reached consensus that dioxin does no harm until a certain threshold of exposure is reached.

In other words, Carlo claimed (and the Chlorine Institute sent out press statements claiming) was that the Banbury meeting had reached agreement that there is some amount of dioxin that is safe -- and the word "threshold" suggests that it is a manageable level.

The institute's statement, however, didn't accurately reflect what had happened at the conference, according to the Wall Street Journal. "A Chlorine Institute official concedes its representations about the conference were a 'botched publicity effort.' The Institute now agrees there was no conference consensus on whether a dioxin threshold exists."

The EPA moves to reasses dioxin

However, before the world had a chance to learn that the Chlorine Institute was playing fast and loose with the facts, the Institute's disinformation about Banbury was fed to William Reilly, chief of EPA, who fell for it. Citing the Banbury "consensus," in early 1991 Reilly ordered his scientific staff to officially "reassess" the toxicity of dioxin.

The paper industry got help from other friends in high places. In May, 1991, a highly-placed federal health official just three years away from retirement announced that dioxin was much less toxic than previously believed. Dr. Vernon Houk, Director of the Center for Environmental Health and Injury Control, announced that he believed dioxin was only "a weak carcinogen."

Houk's statements formed the "news hook" that allowed the New York Times to climb on board with its own page-one story August 15, 1991: "U.S. Officials Say Dangers of Dioxin Were Exaggerated." With the Washington Post, the NY Times, Houk and Reilly all speaking with one voice, the "detoxify dioxin" campaign was clearly succeeding.

But with the publication of the Wall Street Journal's story on February 20, the campaign has come unraveled. The scientist in charge of EPA's reassessment, Peter Preuss, is quoted in the WSJ as saying that Vernon Houk's statements "misled" the public about the dangers of dioxin. Other scientists on EPA's reassessment team say dioxin seems to be just the tip of a nasty iceberg--that other chemicals in the environment seem to share dioxin's ability to interfere with the human reproductive and immune systems -- they act to a large degree as oestogen mimics.

If we all carry dioxin in our bodies at an average of 7 ppt [parts per trillion], and then add the similar effects of furans and PCBs [polychlorinated biphenyls -- found in transformers, and electrical equipment etc.], our average body burden of "dioxin equivalents" may be as high as 100 ppt.

This is not good news. And it means that any additional dioxins or furans added to the environment would worsen a situation that it already unacceptable from a public health perspective. Knowing this, anyone who intentionally emits dioxins into the environment seems likely to become a logical target for a barrage of lawsuits.

See also how US National Public Radio handled the story.

[Credit for most of this article should go to Rachel's Environmental News and to FAIR. However the material has been checked by me as much as possible, explained in a bit more detail, and suplemented by material from other sources.]


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