Environment, health activists urge release of dioxin report

by Danielle Knight

Washington, 29 May (IPS) - To the cheers of environmentalists and community health activists, the government is expected to finally release a decade-long study evaluating the potential dangers dioxins pose to humans and the environment.

Two weeks ago, a panel of scientists decided it would urge the EPA to release the long-awaited report. Environmental groups, elated with the news, say the report, known as the Dioxin Reassessment, would have been released much sooner if the process had not been delayed by industry groups.

“The fact that this report has been in draft form for the last 10 years has been a stumbling block for community groups who have been pushing for strong health policies on dioxin and an excuse for the chemical industry to carry on with business as usual,” says Monica Rohde with the Virginia-based Centre for Health, Environment and Justice.

Dioxins are not intentionally created; but they are generated as wastes and by-products when municipal and hazardous waste is burned or during the manufacture of chemicals containing chlorine, such as pesticides, PVC (vinyl) plastics, and paper products.

Exposure to dioxins has been linked to cancer, sterility, birth defects, and weakened immune systems. Dioxins are considered global pollutants and are regulated under the international agreement on Persistent Organic Pollutants (known as the POPs treaty). Dioxins can travel long distances, remain in the environment for a long period of time, and build up in the food chain.

The content of the working draft of the report on dioxins has been publicly available since last year and appears on the EPA’s website. But until the agency officially approves the report, the EPA does not have to issue new regulations on dioxins.

The 3,200-page draft version of Dioxin Reassessment concludes that dioxins are no longer a potential cancer causing chemical, but a “known” carcinogen.  Dioxins, according to the draft, could be giving cancer to one out of every 1,000 people at high risk of cancer in the United States. It also states that exposure to dioxins may also cause birth defects, reproductive problems and damage to the immune system.

Since the report could influence legislation, environmental and health organisations across the nation have been anxiously calling for its official release. More than 400 organisations recently wrote to President George W. Bush and EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitmann, urging the study’s release.

Environmental activists and some lawmakers are charging chemical corporations and industry groups with trying to delay the release of the report.

Last year, industry lobbyists attached a rider to a Congressional budget resolution that would have delayed the report until it went through a third peer review. While the proposal did not succeed, environmental advocates say that the chemical industry has been trying to change the content of the EPA report.

According to a report by the Centre for Health, Environment and Justice, six of the 21 members on the panel of scientists who are peer-reviewing the study for the EPA’s Science Advisory Board, have financial ties to companies that produce dioxins.

One-third of the scientists have taken research funds from about 90 companies that would be adversely impacted by regulations that cannot go into effect until the agency’s report is finalised, says the report. And its chairman, Morton Lippmann, a professor at New York University, has close ties to the industry, it adds.

Richard Clapp, an epidemiologist at Boston University’s School of Public Health who serves on the review panel, says that the industry-funded scientists have consistently tried to weaken the report’s findings. “The process leading to the final draft of the (sub-committee’s report) and its Executive Summary was not transparent, and in fact was subverted by at least one member who is a consultant for the chemical industry,” says Clapp.

David Fischer, with the Chlorine Chemistry Council, says that industry has not been trying to delay the release of the report and has only been asking for adequate time to do a thorough peer review of the Dioxin Reassessment before its release.

“In the Scientific Advisory Board process, we have been filing comments just like anyone else has a right to,” says Fischer. “We have been advocating for full and fair review of the documents ... and view this as trying to produce a scientifically sound document,” says Fischer.

This month, the review panel released an executive summary of the draft report that was criticised as biassed in favour of industry because it did not recognise that dioxins are a ‘known’ human carcinogen.

“Recent actions give the appearance that the Science Advisory Board’s objective and disinterested scientific peer review process has been subverted and replaced by a highly politicised process that is intended to prevent - or indefinitely delay - the agency from finalising the dioxin health assessment document,” says a letter to the Science Advisory Board, sent on 14 May by four members of the House of Representatives, Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, Congressman George Miller, Congressman Henry Waxman, all from California, and Congressman Frank Pallone Jr.  of New Jersey.

Despite the advisory panel’s executive summary, the Science Advisory Board Executive Committee, on 15 May, unanimously approved the draft Dioxin Reassessment, except for some “minor editorial changes”. The Committee is expected to send a letter on June to the EPA urging the release of the final Dioxin Reassessment, which is expected out in June or July. The committee also says it will investigate reports that the advisory panel was biassed.

“This is a huge victory for the American people,” says Rohde.

Apart from the EPA, other national and international health authorities have decided to take a firm stance on dioxins. The World Health Organisation’s International Agency for Research on Cancer officially supports the view that dioxin is a ‘known’ human carcinogen. And in January, the US Department of Health and Human Services’ National Toxicology Programme (NTP) announced that it would add dioxin to its list of substances “known to be a human carcinogen”. The NTP had planned to reclassify dioxin as a ‘known’ carcinogen earlier, but was prevented from doing so by an industry-sponsored lawsuit.

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