A publication of Work On Waste USA, Inc., 82 Judson, Canton, NY 13617 315-379-9200 August 1994
It is difficult in a few pages to summarize nearly three days of intense discussion and concentrated presentation that occurred at this Conference. First and foremost it was a great coming together. Nearly 300 people gathered from over half the states in the U.S. as well as seven other countries. Citizens were exposed to some of the best communicators in science, just as scientists and officials were forced to relive the harrowing tales of citizens who have had their lives and communities turned upside down by the twin hemorrhage of dioxins toxic effects and governments obfuscation. But this was a gathering that wanted more than information, or even the chance to weep; this was a group of fighters who wanted the ammunition to get rid of the dioxin threat once and for all.
Added together, we were christened the truth squad by Lois Gibbs, who kicked off the Conference, and part of the turning point by Dr. Barry Commoner, who gave the keynote address on The Political History of Dioxin. Nor was it difficult to believe in a turning point with the Conference coming just a few weeks before the publication of the EPAs three year reassessment on dioxin. Unlike the First Citizens Conference where many felt that the EPA reassessment was being manipulated by industrys consultants to downgrade dioxin, most at this Conference realized that EPAs reassessment was going to confirm that dioxin was even worse than we thought in 1991, particularly in its effects on the immune, hormone and neurological systems. One sensed the argument had shifted from How bad is dioxin? to What are we going to do about it? The Conference agenda reflected this evolution. On Friday we heard from communities impacted by high dioxin contamination like Times Beach and Seveso, Italy. On Saturday we examined the science of dioxin and on Saturday night and Sunday we explored various strategies at the local, national and international level designed to reduce and eventually eliminate all sources of dioxin going into the local environment.
Listening to the victims of high dioxin exposure, it is clear that citizens have been way ahead of scientists in understanding what dioxin can do to people. Or as Dr. Richard Clapp put it later, The definition of a health catastrophe is something so bad than even an epidemiologist can spot it! As the truth finally emerges on this issue, it is worth listing some of the problems that have plagued epidemiologists working on dioxin-exposed communities, apart from the obvious one that most of the studies by industry and government agencies were designed not to find a problem! 1. Many of the populations that were exposed and studied were small and it is difficult with small numbers to demonstrate statistically significant changes. 2. Most of these studies have excluded women. 3. Cancer has a long latency period (20 years). 4. Dioxin, as a promoter of cancer, appears to influence the rate of cancer at many different sites in the body. 5. Dioxins non-cancer effects can be intergenerational and subtle. In some of these respects dioxin fits into Dr. Wayland Swains characterization of the perfect pollutant - perfect in the sense of escaping scientific detection!
The Conference presenters identified two ways that the issue can be tackled. Admiral Zumwalt indicated that he and Dr. Arnold Schecter (another Conference participant) would be going to Vietnam to meet with his former adversaries to discuss with them the possibility of doing an epidemiological study on the largest dioxin exposed community in world history, along with the largest control group: namely, a study to compare the health of the South Vietnamese with those from the North. [Over many years and despite several requests, the World Health Organization has consistently denied funding such studies in Vietnam.] A second approach was demonstrated by several participants, who showed that subtle changes can be demonstrated if the experiment or experimental technique was elegantly designed. Particularly striking in this regard was the work of Dr. David Cantor, a neuropsychologist from the Scottish Rite Childrens Medical Center in Atlanta, Georgia, Dr. Peter McConnachie, the director of the Immunotransplant Lab in Springfield, Illinois, Dr. Janna Koppe, a perinatal toxicologist from the University of Amsterdam, Netherlands, Dr. Vyvyan Howard, a senior lecturer in fetal and infant pathology at the University of Liverpool in England and Dr. Roland Knebusch, a neurologist from Germany.
Dr. David Cantor was part of a team put together by Gerson Smoger to examine the health of 17 children from Times Beach exposed prenatally to dioxin. In a non-invasive technique Dr. Cantor was able to explore the frequency of firing of cells in different parts of the brain. He found that there was a significant decrease in firings in the frontal lobe area of the Times Beach children compared to a control group.
Dr. Janna Koppe compared the thyroid function of babies at one week and at eleven weeks born to two groups of mothers; one group having low background levels of dioxin in their breast milk and those with high background levels. She found that there were significant differences in thyroid metabolism in these two groups of babies at both one week and 11 weeks of age. This is the first study that indicates any kind of biochemical or hormonal change for humans exposed to background levels of dioxins. (See Lancet, May 23, 1992, 339, p 1303, or Waste Not # 234.)
Other scientists like Tom Webster, Dr. Peter Kahn and Dr. Angelika Tritscher, explained what we know about the biochemical mechanism by which dioxin and related compounds inflict their havoc on the chemical machinery of living things. These mechanisms appear to impact so fundamentally on the central avenues of regulation and control in mammalian systems, that Conference participants had little difficulty in embracing Dr. Barry Commoners call for the complete elimination of chlorine from the chemical industry. This point was further underlined when both Joe Thornton and Pat Costner received standing ovations after outlining the Greenpeace strategy for achieving this goal, as well as their call for a complete phase out of the use of incineration for handling waste.
In the panel organized and chaired by Dr. Mary OBrien to discuss elimination strategies for dioxin, we were fortunate to have on hand Dwain Winters, who is the director of the U.S. EPAs Dioxin Policy Project and is intimately involved in the publication and policy implications of the EPAs reassessment. Dwain was able to witness first-hand how well-informed the grassroots movement is on dioxin. Also part of the discussion on a national strategy were Pat Costner, Dr. Peter deFur and Dr. Peter Montague. The discussion covered the full gamut from the suspicious science of risk assessment to the threatening power of the corporation. An interesting question raised was why the International Joint Commission (IJC) on the Great Lakes, grappling with the same disturbing ramifications of introducing persistent chemicals, such as dioxins, PCBs and other endocrine disrupters, into the environment, is willing to offer more fundamental suggestions to cure the problem than the EPA. The answer may be that the IJCs position was influenced by its concern for the future of the human species whereas the immediate concerns of the EPA is for the future of the corporations which produce these substances.
Despite its timidity when it comes towards a policy to eliminate dioxin, there is no question that the participants applauded the EPAs willingness to uphold the science of dioxins dangers and the openness with which they have conducted their reassessment. Participants from Canada, France, Germany, Holland, Italy, Mexico, Spain and the U.K. indicated that they are eagerly waiting to receive copies of EPAs reassessment so that they can encourage their respective governments to take action and adjust their weak dioxin standards.
It was very clear at the end of the Conference that no one believed our work would be over with the publication of the EPAs dioxin reassessment. Our urgent task is to make sure that the very late recognition of dioxins dangers be converted into swift and meaningful action to stop the generation of dioxin, and related compounds, at their source. To this end those still remaining (over 100) at the end of the Conference passed a resolution calling for the phase-out of the manufacture of organochlorines (including PVC) and the immediate halt of all incinerators (see Waste Not #297). A second resolution was passed that allowed specific incinerator battles to be referenced in the Resolution. Waste Not readers should contact us if they want a copy of the resolution that lists the name of the specific incinerator with which they are involved.
At the Conference Dwain Winters said he would send copies of the summary chapter of EPAs dioxin reassessment, expected to be available for public comment on Sept. 16, to those who attended the Conference. If you wish a copy write to: Dwain Winters, Director, Dioxin Policy Project, Office of Pesticides & Toxic Substances (7401), U.S. EPA, Washington, D.C. 20460.
Editors: Ellen & Paul Connett, 82 Judson Street, Canton, New York 13617. Tel: 315-379-9200. Fax: 315-379-0448.