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Synthesis/Regeneration 7-8   (Summer 1995)

The Dioxin Story

by by Gayle Greene (Scripps College) and Vicki Ratner (Physician)

The story reaches across the coastal ranges of Oregon to the inner cities of Detroit and Columbus, from the jungles of Vietnam to small towns in Maine, Missouri, West Virginia, Arkansas, and Florida. It is a story of science and politics, of economics and personalities. It's a story where admirals clash with assistant surgeon generals, whistle blowers defy public regulatory agencies, and housewives stand up in defense of their children and communities. It begins with men coming home from war poisoned by Agent Orange and continues with the uprising of citizens opposed to the dumping and incineration of toxic wastes in their residential and school areas. It is an issue that keeps getting closer and closer to home, beginning in the jungles of Vietnam and ending in the food chain and in us.

It is a story that affects each and every one of us, since dioxin is everywhere—in the air we breathe, the food we eat, the creatures of the fields, forests, lakes and streams, and in us and it is present in alarmingly high levels. Since we pass it to the next generation in semen, milk, and the placenta, it is affecting our children in ways we can barely imagine. For dioxin is not only a potent carcinogen, but a suppressor of the immune system and a disregulator of hormonal and neurological development. If we stopped producing it today it would turn up in the bodies of our great great great great great great grandchildren, persisting, like the fulfillment of a Biblical curse, unto the seventh generation.

It is an issue with huge sums of money riding on it, the fates of multi-million dollar industries hanging in the balance. Dioxin is implicated in chlorine-based production—in the production of pesticides, plastics, pulp and paper—and the incineration of waste. Yet dioxin is only the tip of the iceberg. It is one of thousands of chemically related chlorinated products and by-products, including DDT and PCB's that are highly toxic to humans and the global environment. It's an issue that strikes to the heart of the petrochemical industry itself. This is why, at a time when the International Joint Commission, the Paris Commission, the American Public Health Association and Greenpeace are all recommending an all-out ban of organochlorines, the chemical industry is waging publicity campaigns to persuade us that we can't live without chlorine. At the same time, the print media assure us that dioxin is not particularly dangerous. They don't tell us that newspapers need paper and paper bleaching makes dioxin.

The dioxin story highlights key conflicts between the forces that govern our society. It is a test case for who should control decisions about production. It's a focal point for questions concerning the power of multinational corporations to produce what they will versus the individual's rights to freedom from harm. It is no less than a test case for who owns America.

It is an ugly story but it is also an inspiring story, illustrating cases of governmental collusion, of fraudulent claims, faked studies, and the manipulation of research data by industry and government—the White House, the Center for Disease Control (CDC), the Veterans Administration (VA), the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). But it's also a story of people saying no, they've had enough, and digging in their heels to defend their families and communities. It's a story that's made new forms of resistance, new groups, new leaders. It's a story that has made heroes.

It is a puzzle whose pieces are only now coming together, as we begin to understand how dioxin works and how our society works. Now is the time to tell this story, as EPA is in the process of taking a new look at dioxin, releasing a study which has been in the works for nearly half a decade. It undertook this reassessment at the urging of industry, assuming that it would reassure the public and lower dioxin standards. But the study keeps turning up evidence that dioxin is worse than was imagined.

This compilation of articles from people across this country, and around the world, is an attempt to change the ending of this story while there is still a chance to make a difference—while there is still time to ensure a safer and healthier planet for future generations.

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