Dioxin scare debunked by marketplace reality

Published November 1, 2000

The long-running and costly health scare over dioxin has finally been debunked.

Admittedly, the Environmental Protection Agency recently said dioxin is 10 times more dangerous than the agency previously thought.

And yes, environmental activists have already launched a campaign against dioxin levels in food products.

But amidst all the eco-terrorist rhetoric comes a sweet taste of reality from an unlikely source: ice cream maker Ben & Jerry’s.

Two independent laboratories using different methodologies discovered that a single serving of Ben & Jerry’s “World’s Best Vanilla” ice cream contained about 200 times the level of dioxin EPA says is safe.

Nevertheless, the ice cream maker remains in business, and continues to sell its “dioxin-laden” product . . . offering real-world evidence that the low-levels of dioxin in our food and the environment are not dangerous.

The many flavors of dioxin

Ubiquitous in the environment, dioxin is a by-product of many industrial processes (chemical manufacturing and incineration), consumer activities (automobile exhaust and fireplace wood-burning), and natural processes (forest fires and volcanic eruptions).

Over the last 25 years, dioxin has been portrayed by environmental activists as “the most toxic substance known to man.” Dioxin was the contaminant of concern at Love Canal and Times Beach and in the Vietnam-era defoliant Agent Orange.

EPA has been “reassessing” the alleged hazards of dioxin for almost 10 years. The agency’s 1994 effort to label dioxin as a “known human carcinogen” was rejected by its independent science advisers. Back from the drawing board this June, EPA urges dioxin be labeled as even a more potent human carcinogen.

Environmental activists extrapolating from EPA’s report claim one of every 14 cancers is caused by the dioxin in our bodies and from unavoidable daily exposures through food and the environment. Allegedly, dioxin is causing a variety of developmental, behavioral, and immune problems in children.

Following EPA’s dioxin announcement, the Center for Health, Environment and Justice–an environmental activist group–placed a full-page advertisement in The New York Times picturing a breakfast and pointing to the foods containing dioxin, including an omelet’s eggs and cheese, bacon, sausage, cream, milk, and butter. According to the ad, dioxin is “the most toxic man-made substance on Earth. . . . And you had some for breakfast. And you’ll have some for lunch. And for dinner.”

Scientists agree very high exposures to dioxin may cause severe, although temporary, acne–as occurred in some of the population surrounding a chemical facility that exploded in Seveso, Italy, in 1976. That is the only negative health effect scientists agree can be attributed to dioxin. Still, EPA and the environmentalists press their case against dioxin.

So what’s a consumer to do?

Ben & Jerry’s to the rescue

Last summer, I enjoyed some Ben & Jerry’s ice cream at one of their “scoop shops” . . . and noticed there a marketing brochure titled “Our Thoughts on Dioxin.” According to the brochure, “Dioxin is known to cause cancer, genetic and reproductive defects and learning disabilities. . . . The only safe level of dioxin exposure is no exposure at all.”

Knowing that dioxin is present in virtually all food, Dr. Michael Gough and I put Ben & Jerry’s ice cream to the test. Gough is a former government scientist who chaired the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ advisory panel on the effects of dioxin-contaminated Agent Orange on U.S. Air Force personnel in Vietnam. He served as one of EPA’s science advisors in the 1994 review of dioxin. Gough and I had a sample of Ben & Jerry’s “World’s Best Vanilla” ice cream tested by two independent laboratories, each using a testing methodology different from the other. They reached a similar conclusion: A single serving of the ice cream contained about 200 times the level of dioxin deemed safe by EPA’s current standard. Under the proposed new standard, a serving of Ben & Jerry’s would exceed the safe level by 2,000 times. The ice cream’s dioxin level is about 7,400 times higher than what EPA says is safe for a 40-pound child.

If dioxin is as dangerous as Ben & Jerry’s and Greenpeace (the ice cream maker’s science advisors) seem to think, then how can the company sell its ice cream? Don’t Ben and Jerry care about the health and safety of children?

More dangerous than a gasoline refinery?

EPA and a California-based activist group, Communities for a Better Environment, have assailed a San Francisco-area gasoline refinery for its discharges of dioxin into San Francisco Bay. EPA standards permit the refinery’s wastewater to contain 0.14 trillionths of a gram of dioxin per liter.

Based on our testing, a single serving of Ben & Jerry’s contains about 2,285 times more dioxin than an 8-ounce “serving” of gasoline refinery wastewater at the permitted level.

None of this is to say that Ben & Jerry’s ice cream is dangerous. The truth is, the low-levels of dioxin in our food and the environment are not dangerous. But the pushers of dioxin hysteria, including their ally and financial backer Ben & Jerry’s, won’t acknowledge this.

“World’s Best Hypocrites”?

Ben & Jerry’s intends to continue selling its “dioxin-laden” ice cream–in which case an appropriate new flavor might be “World’s Best Hypocrisy.” The company and its radical environmentalist cohorts will persist in their dioxin fearmongering. Why? Pure politics . . . and money.

Fearmongering is an effective fundraising strategy for environmental activists. Forcing lower dioxin emissions on industry provides EPA with greater regulatory power. Vietnam veterans have already pressured the federal government into compensating them for a variety of illnesses allegedly caused by Agent Orange, and they’re pushing for a monument to the chemical’s supposed “casualties.”

Dioxin researchers have enjoyed over $1 billion in federal funds over the past 20 years. University of Texas researcher Arnold Schecter, working in conjunction with activists at the Environmental Defense Fund, wants money to investigate alleged Agent Orange-associated health effects among the Vietnamese population. Can “reparations” for the Vietnamese be far behind?

Ben & Jerry’s isn’t the only business trying to exploit the dioxin scare. Two firms, Toronto-based Bio Business International and Denver-based Natracare LLC, are marketing dioxin-free tampons in the midst of an “anonymously” launched e-mail scare campaign that even the Food and Drug Administration has decried as a hoax.

Too many people have too much invested in dioxin-mania to expect it to stop any time soon. Whenever it raises its head, just enjoy a scoop of Mike & Steve’s Debunkey Monkey.

Steven J. Milloy is the publisher of Junkscience.com, an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute, and a columnist for FoxNews.com. He can be reached by email at [email protected].