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New England Journal of Medicine


In January 1991 a comprehensive study of US chemical workers exposed to dioxin in the course of their work at least 20 years earlier was published in The New England Journal of Medicine. The 13 year study was carried out by Marilyn Fingerhut and her colleagues at the National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety on over 5000 men who worked at 12 different factories between 1942 and 1984. It found that the workers had a 15% higher death rate from cancer than the US average. Those exposed to low levels of dioxin (about 90 times background levels) had no statistically significant increase in cancers, whilst those exposed to high levels (about 500 times background levels) were 50% more likely to die of cancer (Roberts 1991b, p. 625).

In an editorial for The New England Journal of Medicine in which the study was published, John Bailar predicted that "Parties on both sides of the continuing debate about the regulation of dioxin exposure will no doubt cite this work in support of their positions" (Bailar 1991, p. 260); which indeed they did.

The chlorine and paper industries cited the Banbury conference, the Fingerhut study and the recount of tumours from the earlier rat study in a major public-relations campaign to show that dioxin was safer than previously thought. They lobbied the EPA to reassess its regulation of dioxin. Emerging evidence that dioxin could cause a range of health effects apart from cancer was ignored. The National Chamber Foundation, an affiliate of the US Chamber of Commerce, released a report claiming that "new studies reveal cancer risks from exposure to dioxin are greatly exaggerated" and dioxin "poses no threat to humans, at either normal exposure levels or elevated exposure levels caused by occupational practices or industrial accidents." (Quoted in Lapp, 1991, p. 9)

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Additional Material

Bailar, John C. 1991, 'How Dangerous is Dioxin', The New England Journal of Medicine, Vol. 324, No. January 24, pp. 260-2.

Lapp, David, 1991, 'Defenders of Dioxin: The Corporate Campaign to Rehabilitate Dioxin', Multinational Monitor (October) , pp. 8-12.

Roberts, Leslie, 1991b, 'Dioxin Risks Revisited', Science, Vol. 251 (8 February), pp. 624-6.


© 2003 Sharon Beder