by Pia K. Hansen

More and more people get cancer. The rate has grown from one in every four people in the 1960s to one in every three people today. Because a lot more is known about cancer -- and about its successful treatment -- people fortunately survive the deadly disease more often today. But that doesn't mean steps shouldn't be taken to limit the potential cancer risks associated with exposure to certain chemicals, behaviors or practices.

For instance, it's widely accepted today that smoking can cause cancer -- something few even considered in the '60s.

But on the long list of man-made carcinogens, one specific item has long been under suspicion for causing more havoc than any other chemical: dioxin.

A new report released by the Stop Dioxin Campaign coordinated by the Center for Health, Environment and Justice (CHEJ) in Falls Church, Va., flat out accuses the chemical industry of trying to delay the EPA's final assessment on how toxic dioxin really is.

Released in early April, the report, entitled "Behind Closed Doors," tracks the EPA's dioxin review process, alleging that the chemical industry has done all it could to prevent the EPA's final dioxin health risk assessment from ever seeing the light of day.

"The chemical industry, like the tobacco industry, has made it their priority to keep this damaging information secret," says activist Bright Spirit, president of People for Environmental Action and Children's Health (PEACH), a local group on the national Stop Dioxin List. "This type of corporate misbehavior is unacceptable. This report exposes the chemical industry's attempts to conceal the truth, and they need to be held accountable. It is our fundamental right to be protected from the harm of toxic chemicals like dioxin."

Dioxin is a PBT (a persistent, bioaccumulative, toxic chemical) that's no longer deliberately produced. It was the active ingredient in Agent Orange (the defoliator used by U.S. troops during the Vietnam War), and it caused unbelievable damage and death in 1976 in the Italian village Seveso, where an industrial accident at a chemical plant exposed the local population to substantial amounts of dioxin.

Longitudinal studies in that area, performed by researchers from the University of Milan, have uncovered higher rates of cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, along with an excess of diabetes cases and an increased occurrence of cancer. They draw the conclusion that "the observed cancer excesses are associated with dioxin exposure."

Closer to home, dioxin is a byproduct of industrial processes that use and burn chlorine, such as paper pulp mills and garbage and medical waste incinerators.

The CHEJ report's tracking of the EPA's work on the dioxin health risk reassessment study begins in 1985, when the EPA completed its first dioxin health assessment. Back then, the EPA reported that more people would get cancer from dioxin than from any other chemical. With this first study, the agency was aiming to establish a foundation on which to base the regulation of all future emissions of dioxin.

But ever since then, the CHEJ report alleges, chemical industry organizations such as the Chlorine Chemistry Council have tried to manipulate the EPA's scientific peer review board, the Science Advisory Board (SAB), to reject the science behind the dioxin study.

After an industry-sponsored conference on dioxin in 1990, then-EPA Administrator William Reilly instigated a reassessment process of the first dioxin study. According to the CHEJ report, a draft of this study was released in 1994, with the same conclusion: that dioxin poses a serious cancer risk and that the average American had a level of dioxin in his or her body that could damage human health.

The industry rejected several chapters of this reassessment and sent it back to the EPA, the report says. The final reassessment study was released in June, 1994, and the new results were still not in the industry's favor: This time, the EPA said the risk of getting cancer from dioxin exposure was 10 times higher than what was reported in 1994.

Samuel Rondberg, executive secretary and editor for the SAB, a federal advisory committee consisting of scientists, engineers and economists which reviews research and provides scientific advice to the EPA and Congress, says the SAB revived this study in 1995. It came to the conclusion that it needed more work, especially in the area of cancer risk assessment.

That review has been going on ever since.

What has so enraged environmental groups is the fact that six years have passed where many local and state agencies have hesitated making any regulatory decisions on dioxin, because there wasn't a solid recommendation from the EPA.

Effectively, says the CHEJ report, the industry has been able to continue to pollute through all these years because as long as the health risk assessment is under review, the EPA does not take any regulatory action. In other words, the longer the release of the final study could be postponed, the longer before the EPA would come out and limit emissions of dioxin, thereby forcing the chemical industry to change its ways.

"EPA does not currently regulate dioxins and members of its chemical family," says Rondberg. But the process is moving along. "The SAB executive committee will review the latest draft at a public meeting on May 15. I anticipate that they will approve the report, possibly with minor changes."

Although he's not sure what the final cancer risk assessment will be, he says he has a feeling the EPA has backed off its initial assessment of dioxin being 10 times more dangerous than previously thought.

The Chlorine Chemistry Council did not respond to phone calls asking for a comment on the CHEJ report and its allegations.

Once the SAB review is completed, the report is handed over to the EPA, which then determines if any regulatory process should be started.

Environmentalists fear that the new Bush administration will be tough on anything that aims to regulate industry, and don't hold much hope for the process.

the local study

The EPA has maintained through the years that one of the main sources of dioxin pollution in the U.S. is trash and medical waste incineration. Spokane's own Waste To Energy Plant (WTE) -- also known as the incinerator -- has been under attack from local environmentalists ever since it was even planned.

Prior to 1991, when the WTE did its first burn, Spokane's solid waste was taken to landfills. Problems with contaminated groundwater underneath leaking landfills sent the city searching for another way of getting rid of its trash, and the controversial decision to built an incinerator was made.

When the CHEJ report was released locally, PEACH staged a demonstration in front of the WTE saying that people in the area are being made sick from the dioxin that comes from the incinerator.

The city and Wheelabrator Spokane, Inc., which operates the plant under a 20-year contract with the city, have both maintained that the emissions from the plant are safe and within compliance with all regulations. However, a complete health risk assessment for the plant has yet to be completed.

Initially, the Department of Ecology demanded that a complete health study be conducted as part of the construction of the WTE -- but Spokane is still waiting.

"Only certain parts of it was completed," says Ecology spokeswoman Jani Gilbert. "Some of it was never finished."

But Lloyd Brewer, the environmental programs manager for the city of Spokane, has promising news on the completion of the long-awaited study.

"We're in the hopes that we can get it done toward the end of July. What we are running into is a lot of discussion, and it's taking a lot more time than we thought," he says. The original study was called off after it was discovered that the independent researcher who conducted it was personally involved with the city official overseeing the study. The city was promised a comprehensive health assessment study when the project was adopted, but after a decade of operation there is still no clear picture of what those risks are. All that has changed is that the scientific community seems to believe that incinerators may be more dangerous than previously believed, since dioxin may be more poisonous than anyone knew.

Brewer says the study that's near completion now was instigated in the fall of 1999 and is only slightly late.

"Most times assessments are being done single entity. But in this case we are dealing with a committee, the Technical Oversight Committee (TOC)," he explains. "On it are representatives for the city of Spokane, Ecology, the Health Department and Wheelabrator and some environmental groups, and we all somehow have to come to agreement on this thing."

The independent contractor on this study is Pioneer Technologies out of Olympia. Emissions from the WTE plant are being tested on a daily basis and the plant submits monthly reports to the Spokane County Air Pollution Control Authority.

"It's not like we are looking at stuff that's never been tested before. Fundamentally, we are looking at a human health risk assessment for the chemicals that are being emitted," says Brewer. "We're looking at mercury, dioxins, PCBs -- some of the more general chemicals."

As for which dioxin standards are being used -- the old ones or the more stringent ones that are expected to be recommended by the new EPA report -- Brewer says that without straight guidelines from the EPA, the TOC has asked Pioneer Technologies to use its best scientific judgement.

"We've been going over the different potential numbers to use in this study for the basis," he explains. "Of course, one of the issues is who do you consider the authority on these issues, and people bring many different assumptions to the table."

The EPA maintains that most Americans are exposed to dioxin through the food they eat. Airborne dioxin settles on grass that's eaten by animals who end up on the dinner table, or it settles on vegetables grown in the area. Pulp mills typically emit dioxin into waterways, where it pollutes fish and other aquatic life, which may end up on dinner tables as well.

"We are grappling with some of the subtleties on how the statistical modeling is done, how [pollutants] are borne around by the wind, and where the receptors are compared to that," says Brewer. "We also need to take whether that receptor is adult, is it someone who grows all their own food and are they eating fish out of the river that has exposure? There is this range of defaults and assumptions that have to be worked through -- but I'm positive we'll get it done."

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