The Trouble with Dioxin

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The federal government’s decisionto purchase 158 homes and relocate their residents as well as theresidents 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 frompossible health risk to useful political tool.

Love Canal, near Niagara Falls, was built on and around achemical waste dump. Self-appointed, home-grown epidemiologistsclaimed 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. Carefulstudies subsequently showed the hype was just that--hype.Diseases in Love Canal were just what would be expected in acommunity of that size.

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

Dioxin-like chemicals, far less toxic than dioxin, are presentin the soil of a former wood treatment plant at Escambia. TheEnvironmental Protection Agency, worried about the chemicalspossibly contaminating ground water, dug up the soil, heaped itup, and covered it with a thick plastic membrane. Nearbyresidents demanded that their homes be purchased and that they berelocated. They also refused examinations by U.S. Public Health Servicedoctors because they expected that examinations would findnothing wrong. On October 3, the E.P.A. announced the purchase ofnearby homes and apartments.

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

Along with dioxin, politics has been pivotal to allthree stories. Love Canal, the first televised chemophobia drama,led to the passage of Superfund. Times Beach was a response towidespread criticism of the "do-nothing" Reagan E.P.A.The timing of the Escambia decision, a month before thepresidential election, and the facts that Escambia is a minoritycommunity and that the decision is based on concentrations ofdioxin that have been deemed acceptable at every other site inAmerica are strong indications of political considerations. Thestatements of some E.P.A. officials, denied by others, that theWhite House made the Escambia decision underscore the role ofpolitics.

"Dioxin" is such a strong word in the environmentallexicon that literally everyone "knows" it causescancer and birth defects and all kinds of other diseases. Thecommon knowledge is wrong. The E.P.A.’s Science Advisory Boardconcluded that the only human disease known to be associated withdioxin is chloracne, a skin disease never seen in the residentsof Love Canal, Times Beach, or Escambia.

The absence of dioxin-associated diseases in human populationscan’t be taken as proof that harm has not or will not occurbecause it’s impossible to prove a negative. But it’s astrong indicator, and we depend on such evidence. For instance, Iam certain that no dragon walked down Massachusetts Avenue andstopped to look at the statue of Samuel Gompers in the parkacross the street during the last half hour. On the basis of allthe half hours that have passed with no reported dragon, I amconfident that no dragon will ever come down the avenue, but Ican’t be certain.

In 1995 the S.A.B. slapped the E.P.A. with a review that saidits four-years-in-the-making, $6 million "reassessment"of dioxin had "a tendency to overstate the possibility fordanger," and the E.P.A. is still working on a rewrite. Theboard especially criticized the E.P.A.’s method forestimating the risks of dioxin-like compounds: "Simpleadditivity ignores ... the chemical and biological properties ofthese chemicals." But "simple additivity" is thebasis of the Escambia decision.

The E.P.A.’s actions have demolished anyhope 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 governmentwouldn't have bought Love Canal and Times Beach andEscambia."

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

The 104th Congress looked to "better science" as theguide to regulatory reform at the E.P.A. Better science couldhelp, 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.