EPA panel pushes tough new dioxin rules

Published August 1, 2001

Stringent new regulations on low-level dioxins are being pushed by an Environmental Protection Agency advisory panel even though scientific studies cannot show any link between current dioxin levels and adverse effects on human health.

The panel voted unanimously to send a report to EPA Administrator Christie Whitman that would clear the way for federal regulators to impose strict new limitations on low-level dioxin emissions, as well as trace amounts of dioxins in food and chemicals. New regulations would particularly affect the milk, beef, fish, paper, chemical, and medical products industries, where very small amounts of dioxins in their products are currently considered safe.

The panel based its recommendations on experiments by a University of Missouri researcher, whose work supposedly demonstrated that low-level exposure to dioxins caused male laboratory mice to develop increased prostate weight and female laboratory mice to enter early puberty. Outside researchers, however, have been unable to reproduce the Missouri researcher’s findings.

In agreeing to consider the Missouri researcher’s work, the EPA panel broke its own rules aimed at ensuring the verifiability of scientific studies. The agency’s rules require researchers to submit the raw data driving their conclusions, so independent researchers can be allowed to verify each study’s results. The Missouri researcher did not submit his data. Moreover, the researcher based his findings on a unique strain of inbred mice that he killed after concluding his study. Other scientists have been unable to reproduce the study’s alleged results using various mice control groups.

Except for the Missouri study, scientists have found no link between low-level dioxin exposure and human health.

Steven Milloy, adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute and publisher of JunkScience.com, notes, “The dose makes the poison. All substances–including water, salt, and sugar–are poisons in sufficiently high amounts or doses. Below their ‘toxic’ doses, substances aren’t poisons.”

Michael Gough, the Cato Institute’s director of science and risk studies, noted that even in larger doses, dioxins have not been shown to be very harmful to humans. “‘Dioxin’ is such a strong word in the environmental lexicon that literally everyone ‘knows’ it causes cancer and birth defects and all kinds of other diseases. The common knowledge is wrong. EPA’s Science Advisory Board concluded that the only human disease known to be associated with dioxin is chloracne, a skin disease,” according to Gough.

Warned Milloy, “The implications of the panel’s report are unsettling. The panel recommended that EPA consider changing its guidelines for assessing risk of reproductive and developmental effects from chemicals. The recommendation is likely to spread to other national and international regulatory agencies.”

To put tight new controls on low-level exposure to chemicals without a verified correlation with human health effects “puts virtually every industrial chemical and many consumer products at risk of being stringently regulated or banned without a scientific basis,” said Milloy.