Dioxin Controversy Pt. 2
The EPA’s third and most recent reassessment study took almost four years and cost $4 million. In 1995 the final report was published. It stated that:
There is adequate evidence from studies in human populations as well as in laboratory animals and from ancillary experimental data to support the inference that humans are likely to respond with a plethora of effects from exposure to dioxin and related compounds.
Most significant in this analysis is the heightened concern about noncancer effects in humans, including disruption of the endocrine, reproductive, and immune systems, as well as dioxin’s impact on the developing fetus, which may occur in some cases at or near background levels.
The report referred to studies that had found “decreased sperm count in men, higher probability of endometriosis in women, weakened immune systems, and other health problems” as a result of dioxin exposure in the general population at levels already found in the food supply. The report claimed that current background levels of dioxins could be posing a risk of one additional death in every thousand or one in every ten thousand, even though as little as 30 pounds of dioxin may be released in the US each year.
The EPA study also examined the sources of dioxin in the environment and the ways in which people are exposed. It concluded: “The presence of dioxin-like compounds in the environment has occurred primarily as a result of anthropogenic practices”, that is human activities. It based this conclusion on the sampling of tissue of ancient humans and sediments in lakes near industrial centres in the US which showed low levels of dioxins prior to 1920.
The study found that most dioxin is carried through the air and taken up by plants, which are in turn eaten by fish and animals which bioaccumulate the dioxin in their fatty tissues. By the time humans eat the fish, beef, dairy products etc, the dioxin is far more concentrated than it originally had been in the environment and it accumulates in the fatty tissues of humans. Ingestion of dioxin via food is a far more significant means of exposure than breathing in polluted air. The report noted that the major source of dioxin was incinerators, and that sources such as chemical manufacturing could be significant but that there was insufficient data on them to be able to say.
Whilst the new risk assessment was being put together by the EPA, the new scientific studies being published were causing alarm in industry groups. The Chemical Manufacturers Association, established the Chlorine Chemistry Council (now the American Chemistry Council) in 1993 “to handle public relations, political lobbying, and “scientific initiatives” on all issues for the chlorine industry”. By 1994 the Council was receiving an estimated $12 million annual funding plus another $120 million of in-kind support from member companies. It hired two public relations firms to augment its own public relations staff.
The Chlorine Chemistry Council works with other like-minded organisations in other countries including Euro Chlor and coordinates the International Group of Chlorine Chemistry Associations. It is supported in its public relations efforts by various corporate front groups such as the American Council on Science and Health, conservative think tanks such as the Competitive Enterprise Institute and the Heartland Institute, as well as the Wise Use Movement. The industry is also supported by a number of workers groups. The Alliance for the Responsible Use of Chlorine Chemistry (ARCC), is an alliance of unions and chemical companies that “recognises the significant society and economic benefits provided by chlorine chemistry.” The Chlorophiles, a group of workers in Belgium and the Netherlands, described themselves as “an independent non-profit organisation of workers in the chlorine and PVC industry who want to react against allegations against their work.”
- dioxin occurs naturally and has nothing to do with the chlorine industry
- calls for a phase-out of the industrial use of chlorine amount to banning the element chlorine from the planet
- chlorine-based products have vast benefits and are indispensable to modern life
- the case against dioxin is based on emotion rather than science
- nature produces many substances that behave like dioxin
In the face of the threat to chlorine the Chlorine Chemistry Council hired PR firm Mongoven, Biscoe & Duchin (MBD) who analysed the EPA reassessment report and its public relations implications. MBD specialises in gathering intelligence on environmental activists and in this case it keeps the Chemistry Council up to date on “anti-chlorine activists” and their strategies and advises on ways to counter them.
MBD warned the Chemistry Council that environmental activists would use “children and their need for protection to compel stricter regulation of toxic substances” and that “this would reduce all exposure standards to the lowest possible levels...” He also warned that the use of the ‘precautionary principle’ would be pushed by activists and therefore the industry should fight against the precautionary principle and “assist the public in understanding the damage it [the principle] inflicts on the role of science in modern development and production...” According to Peter Montague:
Mongoven’s long-term strategy is to characterize the ‘phase out chlorine’ position as ‘a rejection of accepted scientific method,’ as a violation of the chlorine industry’s Constitutional right to ‘have the liberty to do what they choose,’ and in that sense as a threat to fundamental American values.
MBD recommended a series of steps the Chlorine Chemistry Council should take including;
- taking “advantage of the schisms” within the US government administration such as within the EPA and between the EPA and other government agencies;
- hiring Ketchum Public Relations to “reach out to editorial boards to highlight flaws in the risk assessment portion of the dioxin reassessment”;
- enlisting “legitimate scientists... willing to ask pointed questions” at forthcoming conferences;
- building alliances on the PVC issue, “beginning with those with an obvious economic stake, e.g. home builders, realtors, product manufacturers, hospitals and others...”
- taking steps “to discredit the precautionary principle within the more moderate environmental groups as well as within the scientific and medical communities....”
- directing a programme to “pediatric groups throughout the country and to counter activist claims of chlorine-related health problems in children...”
- getting medical associations on side by getting a panel of eminent physicians to emphasise the role of chlorine “as a key chemical in pharmaceuticals and medical devises” and by stimulating peer-reviewed articles in medical journals on “the role of chlorine chemistry in treating disease...”
- making alliances with environmental groups such as INFORM: “The organization has a solid history of working with corporations, citizen groups, major environmental organizations and governments at all levels.”
The Chlorophiles have undertaken a number of actions on behalf of the industry including a protest at Greenpeace-headquarters in Brussels against their anti-chlorine campaign; a petition; and a letter writing campaign directed at advertisers who use the terms ‘chlorine-free’ or ‘PVC-free’ as a selling point. In 1994 they lodged an unsuccessful complaint against a Greenpeace leaflet with the Dutch Advertising Code Council.
When the Clinton administration proposed that the EPA investigate chlorinated organic chemicals the Chlorine Chemistry Council suggested to its members, their employees and customers that Clinton intended to ban chlorine. It called on them to write to Clinton and to members of Congress and was able to generate, it claims, a million letters to Congress, as well as getting industry executives to contact members of congress, cabinet members and executive branch appointees.
Plastics World proclaimed “Industry officials are aghast that the Clinton Administration would even contemplate a ban on chlorine, given its enormous role in our society, both in industry and in public health.... Behind all the fuss is a mere 30 pounds or less of dioxins produced annually... That’s not even a needle in a haystack.” The Chemical Manufacturers Association met with cabinet members and the proposed study did not eventuate.
The Chlorine Chemistry Council has developed classroom materials to “improve the way science and environmental issues are discussed in the classroom”. These include a newsletter for teachers, curriculum materials, and a module for 9th and 10th graders on Understanding Environmental Health Risks that encourages children to “weigh risks and benefits so they can make sound decisions about environmental hazards.”
A package entitled Welcome to Building Block City! has been described by the a Consumers Union study of environmental materials as “Commercial and incomplete with several inaccuracies and strong bias for chlorine compounds... Fosters false sense of how safe chlorinated chemicals are.”
The Chemistry Council also has teaching materials on the internet which stress the benefits of chlorine and ask students to list all the products that they use at home and at school which use chlorine. They are given a check list of such items to start with. In discussing risk on its internet pages, the Council presents taking risks as an everyday part of life such as driving a car or flying in a plane: “Risk accompanies virtually everything we do. Even seemingly ‘safe’ activities, such as taking a bath or climbing stairs, sometimes result in injury or death.” The implied message is “why even bother about the risk of chlorine products when the benefits are so obvious?”
An example of how the Chlorine Chemistry Council has been operating at the local level is the battle over anti-dioxin resolutions at a Texas Parent Teacher Association (PTA) convention in 1995. A number of local PTAs had passed such resolutions without too much fuss prior to the state convention. Then less than two weeks before the convention a number of industry groups including the Chlorine Chemistry Council, the Texas Chemical Council, the Texas Association of Business and Chambers of Commerce and various others became involved in a pre-convention battle to thwart the resolutions.
One of the resolutions stated that the PTA “supports legislation and actions that decrease, phase-out and eliminate the creation, release and exposure of dioxins...[and] the use of alternative processes, technologies, and products that avoid exposure to Dioxin, especially those that are chlorine-free.”
A front group of six PTA members who posed as ‘concerned parents’ sent a letter with a package of information “from leading citizen and business organizations, academic scientists and public officials” to PTA members and convention delegates. In the letter they labelled the resolutions as “one-sided... inaccurate and misleading.” They described the resolution calling for the elimination of dioxin as a ban on chlorine and chlorine-derived products. The second resolution, which opposed the use of hazardous waste as fuel in a local cement kiln run by TXI, was characterised as a threat to legitimate business. Three of these ‘ordinary parents’ were members of the Chemical Council, one of them an employee of Du Pont; a fourth parent was TXI’s director of communications; and a fifth was a “government affairs consultant” for mining companies and married to the director of the front group Texas Citizens for a Sound Economy.
Parents also received a letter from the President of the Texas Institute for the Advancement of Chemical Technology which claimed that “the use of waste-derived fuel by cement kilns has been proven safe by state and federal studies” and that “no scientific evidence exists connecting the process with any negative effects”. The letter also cited the beneficial uses of chlorine and the jobs the chlorine industry provided.
Before the convention, five professional chemical industry representatives met with the proposer of the motion for three days, persuading her to change the wording of the anti-dioxin resolution. In the end she accepted their reworded resolution which avoided all mention of chlorine and called for further research and “voluntary reductions” of dioxin. That resolution was passed but the second resolution on the cement kiln was postponed indefinitely in a procedural motion before discussion could take place.
The industry response to the EPA draft reassessment report was coordinated with various industry representatives meeting to coordinate their strategies and divide up tasks. The agricultural industry groups, affected because their products had been labelled as being contaminated with dioxins, formed the Dioxin Working Group, coordinated by the National Cattlemen’s Association to lobby Washington officials about the reassessment report and make use of their strong relations with the Agriculture department to apply pressure to the EPA to water down its conclusions before the final report was published.
Advice to the chlorine industry from a consultant with the PR firm E. Bruce Harrison was to emphasise the “gaps in science” and “highlight uncertainties.” The National Cattlemen’s Association hired scientists to write a critique of the reassessment. The dioxin-source industries such as the chemical industry and the incinerator industry questioned the toxicology in the report. The American Forest and Paper Association hired the ENVIRON Corporation to put together an expert panel to review the EPA’s reassessment. This panel argued there was not enough scientific information to support the EPA’s conclusions that “adverse human health effects should be expected at near current background body burdens”. It argued that although developmental and immunological effects were found in animals, no such effects have been found in humans, and cancer was inconclusive because workers had been exposed to other chemicals at the same time.
The Chlorine Chemistry Council attempted to undermine the EPA’s findings, using scientific consultants to attack them at the EPA’s hearings in Washington and by influencing the EPA’s Scientific Advisory Board (SAB) panel which was undertaking a review of the reassessment. According to a Greenpeace report two of the most vocal opponents to the report on the SAB panel were scientists who had received funding from the chlorine industry. One had received several million dollars worth of grants from the American Forest and Paper Association to study dioxin and gifts for research from the Chemical Manufacturers Association and Dow Chemical. The other had received grants from Dow Chemical several years running and his Center had received grants from companies with an interest in dioxin regulation such as Ciba Geigy, DuPont, General Electric, Georgia-Pacific, ICI, Monsanto and others.
The Scientific Advisory Board met in May 1995. It’s recommendations mainly addressed “refinements, corrections, and clarifications, not substantive revisions.” It agreed with the EPA position that “current levels of dioxin-like compounds in the environment” are derived from human activities. It also concurred that their estimate of average dioxin exposure was reasonable. “Virtually all of the committee” believed that dioxin and dioxin-like materials should be classified as a probable human carcinogen.
Corporations engaged in a concerted and lengthy public relations campaign to portray dioxin as relatively safe. They were able to do this through their use of third parties to put their case as well as through direct lobbying and public relations tactics. These efforts have often been concealed from the public which must rely on the media for their information.