US urged to eliminate dioxins

by Danielle Knight

Washington, Sep. 2 (IPS) -- Eighteen years ago David Prince had no thoughts of leaving his home in Louisiana to travel to the UN's European headquarters to lend his voice to demands for the phasing-out of toxic chemicals worldwide.

But that was before government officials discovered that the blood levels of Prince and other residents of the mainly African American area of Mossville, Louisiana, were contaminated with a pollutant called dioxin - two to three times higher than the national average.

He and others now want the worldwide elimination of these chemicals that have the ability to travel thousands of miles. "We want chemical plants to stop producing these toxins and we want them to stop it immediately," Prince says.

He told reporters here that his wife has cancer and his daughter has endometriosis, a reproductive disease some researchers believe may be linked to exposure to dioxins.

Next week Prince will join the environmental group Greenpeace at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland where about 100 nations will resume formal negotiations on a treaty to control a group of toxic chemicals known as Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs), which include dioxins.

Along with other POP chemicals like DDT and PCBs, dioxins break down extremely slowly in the environment and are linked to reproductive abnormalities, neurological defects and cancer. Unlike the pesticide DDT, dioxins have not been produced intentionally: they are generated as wastes and by-products when municipal and hazardous waste is burned or in the manufacture of chemicals containing chlorine, such as pesticides, PVC (vinyl) plastics, and paper products.

The pollutants can affect other communities that need not be similar to those in Mossville - who live close to paper mills and vinyl plants that produce dioxins, scientists warn.

Like other POPs, dioxins are labelled "persistent" because they travel worldwide and accumulate in the fatty tissue of animals and humans.

Dioxin-contaminated food made headlines recently in Europe but non-governmental organisations (NGOs) say the US position on the POPs treaty in relation to dioxin has been substantially weakened by pressure from the chemical industry.

Environmental groups are worried that the US State Department, which has not formally released its official stance on dioxins at the Geneva negotiations, will not support any tough action to eliminate the substances.

"The key to solving the problem of dioxin contamination should be reduction with the aim to eliminate the substances from use and production," says Jack Weinberg, a Greenpeace specialist on POPs.

He says that without calling for outright elimination, the chemical companies will be able to still produce dioxins through "loopholes" and the lack of capacity for enforcement of dioxin reduction programmes in developing nations.

"There is great pressure by chemical manufacturers to push these materials and technologies like PVC plastics in developing countries," says Weinberg, who founded the International POPs Eliminations Network (IPEN), a coalition of NGOs.

As promoted by the United States, the proposed Geneva treaty will not provide the framework and tools for developing countries to avoid dioxin contamination by enforcing the reduction of the chemicals, he says. "Many developing countries do not have the infrastructure to do this," Weinberg adds.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) subtle health effects already may be occurring in the general population in industrialised nations at current background levels of dioxin in the environment.

Many indigenous communities in North America that have been heavily contaminated by dioxins are closely watching the talks in Geneva.

"Because dioxins build up in the food chain only working towards the aim of total elimination of these chemicals will have an impact," says Jackie Warledo of the Indigenous Environmental Network.

Warledo says that, while dioxins and other POP chemicals can migrate anywhere in the world, they have a disproportionate impact on indigenous communities - especially tribes that still maintain subsistence culture.

"High levels of dioxin poisoning have been found in fish populations in the traditional territories of the Yakama located in the Northwest, in Penobscots in the state of Maine and also among many tribes within the Great Lakes water basin region and villages in Alaska," says Warledo, who will travel to Geneva next week.

Low-income Black communities, like Mossville and other populations along the Mississippi River in between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, dubbed "cancer alley" by environmental activists - have also borne the brunt of dioxin pollution.

More than 50 paper and PVC plants and other factories are located around Mossville, says Peter Orris, a US physician who directs a project on POPs at the Washington-based World Federation of Public Health Associations.

"There is no question that there is a problem of dioxin contamination in Mossville," says Orris who worked with the US Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry on the health study conducted in the town.

As the study found high levels of dioxins and in the blood of long-time residents of Mossville it advised public health officials to take action to minimize further exposure. The final word comes from David Prince: "The US government needs to stop its rhetoric and start listening to the people and get these plants to stop producing dioxins."

The above article by the Inter Press Service appeared in the South- North Development Monitor (SUNS) .