A publication of Work On Waste USA, Inc., 82 Judson, Canton, NY 13617 315-379-9200 July 1993

How the Media Makes Dioxin Myths.

In an excellent article by Vicki Monks published in the June 1993 issue of American Journalism Review, Monks rakes New York Times environmental reporter Keith Schneider over the coals for his shoddy reporting on dioxin. Waste Not # 233 had earlier drawn attention to Schneider’s outrageous claim that there have been no health problems at Times Beach, Missouri. Below we use Vicki Monks’ article to show how once someone like Schneider creates a myth about dioxins, it bounces around the press like a tennis ball at Wimbledon:

August 16, 1991 Dioxin “is now considered to be no more
New York Times risky than spending a week sunbathing.”
Keith Schneider article

According to Monks’ article, Keith Schneider acknowledged “that no scientist had made the comparison between dioxin and sunbathing. He says he and his editors came up with the analogy by reviewing charts of risk factors for other hazards. ‘It was my metaphor,’ Schneider says. ‘But I ran it by [Dr. Vernon] Houk and two other epidemiologists and they agreed.’” Vicki Monks then interviewed Houk, of the Centers for Disease Control. Houk’s response was: “I don’t know what a week of sunbathing would do...”

August 16, 1991 “some health specialists now rate dioxin as a risk comparable

Star-Ledger, Newark, N.J. to going to the beach for a week and being exposed to sunlight.”

August 17, 1991 “a widening group of scientists (had) come to the conclusion

Sacramento Bee, California that exposure to dioxin under most circumstances is no more

Editorial dangerous than spending a week on the beach.”

August 19, 1991 “top federal scientists now have come to the belated conclusion

Arizona Republic that [dioxin]...is about as harmful to humans as, say, a week’s

Editorial worth of sunbathing...”

September 3, 1991 “Some studies have concluded that the effects of dioxin are no

Dallas Morning News, Texas worse on the body than a week of sunbathing.”

AP Story

December 8, 1991 “Some experts now say that exposure to the chemical is no more

New York Times risky than a week of tanning.”

October 14, 1992 “Last year a U.S. report described the dangers from dioxin as no

Financial Times more harmful than a week of sunbathing.”

“All I can say is that I’d take a week in the sun

anytime over moving back to Times Beach.”

- Marilyn Leistner, former Times Beach mayor.

Excerpts from Vicki Monks’ June 1993 article, “See No Evil,” in the American Journalism Review (pgs. 18-25): According to Monks, Keith Schneider “has taken the lead” in presenting a revisionist view of dioxin. “Last September, for example, he reported that an independent panel of scientists assembled by the Environmental Protection Agency concluded that dioxin is not a large-scale cancer threat except to people exposed to ‘unusually high levels’ in factories or from accidents, and that ‘the risk to average Americans exposed to dioxin...is lower than previously believed.’...Despite the flurry of attention, Schneider’s conclusion about dioxin’s risks have a major flaw: They’re wrong. Many experts in and outside of the federal government say there is no scientific basis for suggesting that dioxin is less dangerous than previously thought. ‘I don’t think we have any indication right now that the risks would be lower than we believed,’ says Dr. William Farland, the EPA official in charge of the department’s reassessment of dioxin. In fact, Farland says, the latest research has raised concerns that dioxin may cause immune and reproductive system problems even at the minute levels found in the general population. Schneider's reporting acumen has been questioned as well. For example, other reporters who attended the scientific panel’s four-day meeting last September came away with a markedly different interpretation. Newsday’s Earl Lane reported that the panel, which was convened to review drafts of the EPA’s assessment of dioxin, had found ‘that the chemical’s effects may be broader and more troubling than previously thought.’ Bureau of National Affairs reporter Jeffrey Johnson paraphrased an EPA official who told him the findings show ‘the ubiquitous chemical remains a major health threat.’...Several scientists who participated in the meetings called Schneider’s story ‘very inaccurate.’ Claude Hughes, a toxicologist, epidemiologist and fertility specialist at Duke University Medical Center, says, ‘Frankly, it was pretty bad journalism. It was not a valid summary of the meeting.’ Schneider says he is simply bucking conventional wisdom. For too long, he says, the press has been a captive of environmental groups. ‘What drives the national environmental groups is not necessarily the truth,’ [Schneider] says. ‘Environmental journalists have to regard environmental groups with as much skepticism as we have traditionally regarded polluters. Environmental truisms such as the thinning of the ozone layer and global warming should also be challenged, he says. ‘We haven’t done enough to look at the other side [of those issues]. We haven’t done as good a job to find those scientists who are skeptical’...Keith Schneider’s coverage of dioxin has surprised many in the environmental community, considering that he has written for publications that are considered champions of environmentalism, including Mother Jones and Buzzworm, a Colorado-based environmental magazine. He also has won plaudits from environmentalists since he joined the New York Times in 1985 for his reporting on nuclear weapons plants. But recently, they say, Schneider has presented distorted views of several environmental issues, including radon and toxic waste. ‘It makes it much more painful when a person of Schneider’s abilities and guts caves in to ignorance or pressure,’ says Peter Montague, director of the Annapolis-based Environmental Research Foundation. ‘Either he is intentionally misleading his readers or he is fundamentally ignorant of the topics he is writing on.’ Schneider knows he has alienated many environmentalists, but says that reporters were ‘co-opted’ by environmental groups in the 1980s ‘in a way that was detrimental to the integrity of journalism’ and ‘very dangerous and expensive to the country.’ For Schneider, dioxin coverage is a ‘defining issue...forcing environmental journalists to look at how they are writing these stories...and whose side they are taking.’ Schneider says he’s at the ‘forefront’ of a ‘new era of environmental reporting,’ in which ‘we look [at] and view all sides equally skeptically, and that we come to conclusions based on data, not on the frantic ravings of one side or another’...Some news organizations, including the Wall Street Journal, U.S. News & World Report and the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, have covered the dioxin controversy well. But the New York Times in particular, the Washington Post and some other news organizations have ignored scientific evidence and presented a grossly inaccurate picture...”

Note from Waste Not: Keith Schneider wrote the introduction to an excellent new book, American Ground Zero. The Secret Nuclear War, by Carole Gallagher (MIT Press, 1993). The book is a series of interviews with people who have been impacted by our government’s 12 year experiment in detonating 126 atomic bombs at the Nevada Test Site. According to Schneider:

“Each of the pink clouds that drifted across the flat mesas and forbidden valleys of the atomic proving grounds contained levels of radiation comparable to the amount released after the explosion in 1986 of the Soviet nuclear reactor at Chernobyl. The Soviet Union was condemned by the United States for keeping the Chernobyl disaster secret for three days and preventing Ukrainians and Europeans from taking measures to protect themselves from the radiation. In contrast, the leaders of the American nuclear weapons industry waged a secret medical and scientific struggle for 30 years to cover up the contamination of vast areas of North America from atomic blasts at the Nevada Test Site...”

Maybe in the next 20 years the New York Times will find the political arena acceptable enough for them to hire a reporter to write equally as well about the complicity of the U.S. government, and the chemical and scientific community, in the fraud, manipulation, and cover-up of the the Watergate of Molecules: dioxin. Perhaps in the next 20 years the NYT will also be able to write about the gross injustice meted out to the Vietnam Veterans and Vietnamese who were poisoned by Agent Orange. Up to this date, every single U.S. federal agency set up to help the Vietnam Vets have let them down. [The Agent Orange Vets are eager to examine the latest report from the National Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Medicine -see Waste Not #243.] And perhaps the NYT, 20 years hence, might apologize for the gross insensitivity of Schneider when he compared the risks of dioxin to “a week of sunbathing.” As noted in Waste Not #233, one of the findings of a study of 78 Vietnam veterans who claimed exposure to Agent Orange revealed that 53 percent of the veterans in the study reported that their rash was aggravated by Sunlight

WASTE NOT # 242. A publication of Work on Waste USA, published 48 times a year. Annual rates are: Groups & Non-Profits $50; Students & Seniors $35; Individual $40; Consultants & For-Profits $125; Canadian $US50; Overseas $65. Editors: Ellen & Paul Connett, 82 Judson Street, Canton, NY 13617. Tel: 315-379-9200. Fax: 315-379-0448.