The Age of Greed: Chemical Industry Fights to Suppress Dioxin Assessment

by Rena Steinzor

With a reverential nod to maverick economist Jeff Madrick, who wrote a popular book of the same name, I begin today a series of blog posts entitled “The Age of Greed” that is designed to shine a bright spotlight into the dark corners where Washington lobbyists are busy looting the protection of public health, worker and consumer safety, and the environment.  Business-as-usual efforts to stall or derail regulation won’t make it into this space.  Rather, behavior has to be demonstrably and extraordinarily egregious to qualify for ridicule here.  My first candidate:  The largely successful efforts by the American Chemistry Council (ACC) and the American Forest and Paper Association (AFPA) to derail the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) study of the devastating health effects of dioxin—you read that right, dioxin!—for more than two decades, capped last week by its letter to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson deliberately misreading an appropriations rider in the Omnibus budget bill as a further excuse to suppress this basic science. 

Everyone knows dioxin is terrible stuff.  The chemical first became a household word in the 1970s when Vietnam veterans exposed to Agent Orange staggered home with the symptoms of dioxin exposure, among other debilitating health effects.  In 2006, the National Research Council (NRC), normally a staid, hide-bound group of blue ribbon scientists more accustomed to scolding EPA than supporting it, opened its report on EPA’s star-crossed, two-decade effort to issue a final dioxin assessment under its Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS) program as follows:

2,3,7,8-Tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin (TCDD), also called dioxin, is among the most toxic anthropogenic substance ever identified.  TCDD and a number of similar polychlorinated dioxins, dibenzofurans, and coplanar polychlorinated biphenyls (dioxin-like compounds [DLCs]) have been the subject of intense scientific research and frequently controversial environmental and health policies. Animal studies have demonstrated potent effects of TCDD, other dioxins, and many DLCs on tumor development, birth defects, reproductive abnormalities, immune dysfunction, dermatological disorders, and a plethora of other adverse effects.  Because of their persistence in the environment and their bioaccumulative potential, TCDD, other dioxins, and DLCs are now ubiquitous environmental pollutants and are detected at low concentrations in virtually all organisms at higher trophic levels in the food chain, including humans.  Inadvertent exposures of humans through industrial accidents, occupational exposures to commercial compounds (primarily phenoxyacid herbicides), and through dietary pathways have led to a wide range of body burdens of TCDD, other dioxins, and DLCs, and numerous epidemiological studies have attempted to relate exposures to a variety of adverse effects in humans.   

Not content to work over EPA’s draft dioxin assessment as the chemical and paper industries expected it to do, the NRC’s preface to its report recited the many rounds of peer review the assessment had undergone in the 1990s, sounding almost apologetic for asking EPA to go back to the drawing board and revise the assessment yet again:

The final recommendations of the committee are offered to EPA with the recognition and appreciation of the enormous amount of time and effort that has been committed to the execution of this Reassessment for nearly 14 years.  Although many of the comments are, not surprisingly, critical of certain aspects or approaches taken by EPA, the committee was impressed overall with the tremendous dedication and hard work that has gone into the creation of the Reassessment. The committee hopes the report will be of value in assisting EPA to make final changes to Part III that will allow the timely release of a scientifically defensible document. [emphasis added]

Six more years marched slowly by, as pitched battles behind the scenes continued, sapping the IRIS program’s energy to assess other common and deadly pollutants and compounding the enormous payoff for the chemical and paper industries.  As we have documented, IRIS is both the foundation for EPA’s efforts to regulate common chemicals and severely backlogged.  For example, the database lacks critical information on more than 100 hazardous air pollutants that Congress required EPA to regulate under the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments.  Jackson’s EPA has picked up the pace significantly, producing nine assessments annually, compared to two a year under the Bush Administration.  But even at that “accelerated” rate, it will still take 55 years to get through the hundreds of chemicals that need formal risk assessments to support EPA’s regulatory programs. 

At long last, EPA announced that it had come to the end of its long road, and would issue the first in two installments of its final dioxin assessment this winter.  The assessment will be a detailed, lengthy scientific analysis.  Alone, it will not require any chemical or paper manufacturer to do a single thing.  But it will provide the analysis that EPA, state, and local governments need to hold manufacturers accountable for dumping the stuff into the soil, the water, and the air.

Cue Capitol Hill stampede.  EPA’s promise to liberate the dioxin assessment was barely up on its website when off the lobbyists galloped to Capitol Hill, where politicians trolling for campaign contributions met them with open arms.  The original appropriations rider pushed by ACC and House Republicans would have stopped EPA in its tracks.  But the compromise negotiated with the Senate simply asked EPA to take care to follow the recommendations of the NRC, which, as we have seen, urged the agency to act “expeditiously” in 2006.

Refusing to leave the trough where it has lunched for so many years, the chemical manufacturers grasped at one last straw, claiming that its members support “the strong, scientifically sound regulation of dioxin” and have worked to “advance this in partnership with EPA.”  (Watch that nose, Pinocchio!)  But, explained EPA’s new-found best friend, the problem is that EPA is going to issue the assessment in stages, focusing first on non-cancer effects and then cancer effects.  Instead, say the same players who have succeeded in wrapping assessment around a lamp pole since the 1980s, EPA needs to re-think the assessment again, and foreclose its release unless and until it is ready to put the pieces back together.

The Age of Greed, indeed.         

© 2014 The Center for Progressive Reform