Commentary

The Trouble with Dioxin

By Michael Gough
December 2, 1996

The federal government’s decision to purchase 158 homes and relocate their residents as well as the residents of 200 apartments in the Escambia section of Pensacola, Fla., like its earlier purchases at Love Canal and Times Beach, proves beyond doubt that dioxin has made the transition from possible health risk to useful political tool.

Love Canal, near Niagara Falls, was built on and around a chemical waste dump. Self-appointed, home-grown epidemiologists claimed sky-high rates of cancers and birth defects in the town, and the hype carried the day. Residents were evacuated in 1980; some houses were torn down and the rest boarded up. Careful studies subsequently showed the hype was just that—hype. Diseases in Love Canal were just what would be expected in a community of that size.

The federal government bought Times Beach, Mo., in 1983 and bulldozed the town because of dioxin in the soil in unpaved roads (and nowhere else). The buyout led to the only biological effect ever identified at Times Beach: populations of wild turkey and deer have exploded in the fenced area of the former town.

Dioxin-like chemicals, far less toxic than dioxin, are present in the soil of a former wood treatment plant at Escambia. The Environmental Protection Agency, worried about the chemicals possibly contaminating ground water, dug up the soil, heaped it up, and covered it with a thick plastic membrane. Nearby residents demanded that their homes be purchased and that they be relocated. They also refused examinations by U.S. Public Health Service doctors because they expected that examinations would find nothing wrong. On October 3, the E.P.A. announced the purchase of nearby homes and apartments.

Dioxin was present at Love Canal, and removal of traces of dioxin from sediment in storm sewers was a final step in the cleanup before the still-standing homes were spruced up and sold at a discount two years ago. The presence of dioxin in the roads of Times Beach was the only reason for destroying the town. Although E.P.A. officials hem and haw about whether dioxin is the reason for the Escambia decision, a scientist employed by the state of Florida says that it is the only possible health concern.

Along with dioxin, politics has been pivotal to all three stories. Love Canal, the first televised chemophobia drama, led to the passage of Superfund. Times Beach was a response to widespread criticism of the “do-nothing” Reagan E.P.A. The timing of the Escambia decision, a month before the presidential election, and the facts that Escambia is a minority community and that the decision is based on concentrations of dioxin that have been deemed acceptable at every other site in America are strong indications of political considerations. The statements of some E.P.A. officials, denied by others, that the White House made the Escambia decision underscore the role of politics.

“Dioxin” is such a strong word in the environmental lexicon that literally everyone “knows” it causes cancer and birth defects and all kinds of other diseases. The common knowledge is wrong. The E.P.A.’s Science Advisory Board concluded that the only human disease known to be associated with dioxin is chloracne, a skin disease never seen in the residents of Love Canal, Times Beach, or Escambia.

The absence of dioxin-associated diseases in human populations can’t be taken as proof that harm has not or will not occur because it’s impossible to prove a negative. But it’s a strong indicator, and we depend on such evidence. For instance, I am certain that no dragon walked down Massachusetts Avenue and stopped to look at the statue of Samuel Gompers in the park across the street during the last half hour. On the basis of all the half hours that have passed with no reported dragon, I am confident that no dragon will ever come down the avenue, but I can’t be certain.

In 1995 the S.A.B. slapped the E.P.A. with a review that said its four-years-in-the-making, $6 million “reassessment” of dioxin had “a tendency to overstate the possibility for danger,” and the E.P.A. is still working on a rewrite. The board especially criticized the E.P.A.’s method for estimating the risks of dioxin-like compounds: “Simple additivity ignores … the chemical and biological properties of these chemicals.” But “simple additivity” is the basis of the Escambia decision.

The E.P.A.’s actions have demolished any hope of science’s leading to better decisions about dioxin. All the science in the world will not displace the argument, “There’s gotta be something there or the government wouldn’t have bought Love Canal and Times Beach and Escambia.”

Escambia shows that any concentration of dioxin may be used to justify political decisions. Whenever a buyout or a multi-million-dollar Superfund cleanup or some other political action is desirable, a trace of dioxin can provide the reason.

The 104th Congress looked to “better science” as the guide to regulatory reform at the E.P.A. Better science could help, but regulatory reform requires a far harder look at E.P.A. policy, not as science, but as politics.

Michael Gough is director of science and risk studies at the Cato Institute.