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Dioxin Report By EPA On Hold
Industries Oppose Finding of Cancer Link,
Urge Delay

By Eric Pianin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 12, 2001

The chemical, beef and poultry industries are waging an intense campaign to delay further an Environmental Protection Agency study showing that consumption of animal fat and dairy products containing traces of dioxin can cause cancer in humans.

EPA scientists and officials say they are confident of the report's findings, which they began circulating last June, and are urging EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman to issue it in final form this summer. But the study, more than a decade in the works, has drawn such intense opposition from industry groups and congressional Republicans that it could be held up for several more years.

By any measure, the economic stakes in the dioxin controversy are high: The EPA's issuance of a final report could result in federal and state regulations costly to chemical manufacturers. It also could provide more adverse publicity for the beef industry at a time of heightened consumer concern about the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in Europe.

Industry groups including the American Chemistry Council, the Chlorine Chemistry Council, the Chemical Manufacturers Association, the American Meat Institute and the National Cattlemen's and Beef Association contend the EPA's study is seriously flawed and exaggerates the health risk dioxin poses.

"We are alarmed at any study that reaches conclusions not based on science," said Gary Weber, executive director of regulatory affairs for the cattlemen's association.

Environmentalists who have closely followed the issue for years charge that industry groups and their political allies in government are working to keep the study bottled up indefinitely for political reasons, not scientific ones.

"What we're saying is the chemical industry has had a big influence over the way the EPA makes its decisions," said Stephen Lester of the Center for Health, Environment and Justice, which monitors hazardous waste. "They've affected the way the science policy and business of the agency is done."

The Bush administration has challenged several Clinton-era environmental and public health rules and initiatives -- including a tough new standard for arsenic in drinking water -- on the grounds they weren't scientifically sound and would cause economic hardship to industry and local governments.

The politically active chemical, livestock and meatpacking industries contributed $1,171,000 to Bush's campaign last year, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Industry officials are lobbying the administration to postpone indefinitely release of the study until other agencies, such as the Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration, can conduct lengthy studies.

EPA officials and spokesmen for the chemical and meat industries dispute environmentalists' charges of a "conspiracy" to block the study's release. They describe the controversy as a dispute over the interpretation of mountains of studies on the health effects of dioxin. Moreover, some scientists were skeptical of the EPA's latest report and predicted it would not withstand scrutiny.

Whitman declined last week to speculate on the fate of the agency draft report, saying only, "We're still looking at that."

Some industry officials concede their primary goal is simply to keep the study of dioxin -- begun during the Reagan administration -- going for as long as possible. David Fischer, managing counsel for the Chlorine Chemistry Council, said his group is pressing the administration to take "an interagency approach" that would allow the FDA, the Agriculture Department and other agencies with jurisdiction over food safety to weigh in.

Fischer said any attempt by Whitman and the EPA to conclude unilaterally that dioxin causes cancer "is a plan doomed for failure."

Dioxin is the airborne byproduct of burning plastics and medical waste containing chlorine. These pollutant compounds infiltrate the food chain through grass and feed, then settle into the fat of livestock and poultry.

The most toxic form of the chemical is known by the acronym TCDD and was more commonly recognized as the contaminant found in Agent Orange, a defoliant used during the Vietnam War. The Air Force has found a "significant and potentially meaningful" relationship between diabetes and bloodstream levels of chemical dioxin in its ongoing study of people who worked with Agent Orange.

Although there is some research of people who were accidentally exposed to the chemical, most data about the potential health effects of dioxin have come from laboratory experiments on animals.

The prevalence of this toxic chemical in the environment has declined by nearly 80 percent since the 1970s because of changing practices in the chemical industry and in waste disposal operations, but the latest EPA study concludes that people who consume even small amounts of dioxin in fatty foods and dairy products face a cancer risk of 1 in 100. They may also develop other problems, such as attention disorder, learning disabilities, susceptibility to infections and liver disorders.

In 1985, the EPA released its first dioxin health assessment, but the agency's findings that the chemical posed one of the most serious threats of cancer in humans of any chemical studied drew strong protests from the chemical industry, which prompted the agency to do a reassessment.

That study, completed in 1994, spurred yet another reassessment. That one culminated in the EPA's issuance last June of its latest findings, showing that the risk of getting cancer from dioxin exposure was 10 times greater than previously thought, ranging from 1 in 1,000 to 1 in 100.

But now there are more hurdles. A subcommittee of an EPA scientific advisory panel composed of outside experts publicly convened in November for two days to review the agency's findings and to make recommendations.

About a third of the 21 panel members were scientists and scholars who have worked as paid consultants to the chemical industry. They included John D. Graham -- long a critic of the notion that dioxin and cancer are linked and founder of the industry-backed Harvard Center for Risk Analysis -- who was recently appointed to a key regulatory review post in the Office of Management and Budget, and Dennis Paustenbach, vice president of Exponent Inc., an engineering and scientific consulting firm. Paustenbach's firm has advised Chemical Land Holdings Inc. and Occidental Chemical Corp. on ways of challenging the EPA's dioxin findings.

An EPA official involved in the preparation of the latest dioxin reassessment said when the advisory panel had completed its meetings, he and other agency officials were under the strong impression that "they had accepted our assumption the data was sufficient to characterize the best studied of the dioxins as a human carcinogen."

Yet on March 13 the panel, headed by Morton Lippmann of the New York University School of Medicine, issued an executive summary of its deliberations that cast serious doubt on many of the EPA's findings -- including the risk assessment of contracting cancer -- and recommended wholesale revisions and rethinking of the study. The industry experts contend that the EPA has overstated the risks posed by normal levels of dioxin in food and questioned the research models used.

Moreover, Lippmann and panel member Genevieve Matanoski had raised strong concerns that EPA scientists had excluded contrary data from two important dioxin studies in reaching their conclusions, according to Gary Kayajanian, an independent consultant who closely monitored the November meetings.

The Center for Health, Environment and Justice protested that some panel members who assisted in preparing the March 13 report had misrepresented the views of the majority of the advisory panel members. But some panel members and their industry supporters say environmental protesters who attended the November sessions may have intimidated some experts and prompted them to withhold their views until they wrote their report.

"I think a lot of us -- me included -- believe the data in the current analysis is fairly weak that risks of cancer [from normal doses of dioxin] are equal to 1 in 1,000," Paustenbach said. "When there's a number of vocal [protesters] who clearly have strong views, there may be a tendency [by panel members] to be cautious and to not antagonize the crowd, if you will."

© 2001 The Washington Post Company

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