On Toxic Dioxin, Will the EPA Fold or Stand Tall?

January 26, 2012 | 5:40 pm
Francesca Grifo
Former contributor

In August 2011, the Environmental Protection Agency committed to releasing a scientific assessment of the health hazards of chemical dioxins by the end of January 2012. The assessment process has dragged on for nearly three decades—and consistent with what has now become a pattern, the industries that are most responsible for dioxin releases are pushing for yet another delay.

Some delays and bureaucracy are understandable, especially when the topic of an assessment is complex. But years of challenges to the science simply to delay regulation can constitute political interference. That’s why yesterday I sent a letter to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson urging her to stand tall and release the non-cancer dioxin assessment by the end of the month and the cancer dioxin assessment as soon as possible.

So what is dioxin? Dioxin refers to a group of chemical compounds that are formed by various combustion processes. Dioxin was a component of Agent Orange, used extensively by the U.S. armed forces as an herbicide during the Vietnam War. According to the World Health Organization, dioxins “can cause reproductive and developmental problems, damage the immune system, interfere with hormones and also cause cancer.”

When EPA scientists finished their first draft of the dioxin assessment, President Reagan had just begun his second term. Here the president is pictured with Mikhail Gorbachev at the Reykjavik Summit. Photo courtesy Ronald Reagan Library

EPA scientists completed their first draft of a dioxin health assessment in 1985. Twenty-seven years ago. That’s not a typo. Quickly thereafter, the paper and chlorine industries challenged the EPA’s assessment. Since then, the science on dioxin has been analyzed and re-analyzed exhaustively, all coming to the same general conclusion: dioxin and dioxin-like compounds are highly toxic. The Center for Health, Environment, and Justice has an informative timeline (pdf, updated through April 2011) that chronicles the many delays and certain notable events related to dioxin exposure.

What was happening in 1985? Mikhail Gorbachev was leader of the Soviet Union. In South Africa, interracial marriage was finally allowed. The ozone hole was discovered. The first blood test for HIV was approved by the FDA. Back to the Future opened. Calvin and Hobbes made their debut. And Barack Obama moved to Chicago to be a community organizer.

Since 1985, we’ve changed presidents four times. And still, the dioxin assessment has not yet been completed. Of course, scientists will continue to study dioxin and refine our understanding of its toxicity. But that is no excuse for continued delays.

The EPA is under significant pressure from industry to postpone its assessment once again. Let’s hope that this time the agency does what is right.