The Hysteria over Dioxin

Published September 29, 1994

The popular press has given extensive coverage to the latest report from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on dioxin. According to press accounts, dioxin may cause cancer and may pose a risk to human immune, reproductive, and developmental systems. Since dioxin is a chemical compound containing chlorine, the new report is said to give fuel to efforts to reduce or even eliminate the use of chlorine in manufacturing processes and protecting public water supplies.

Are these news reports reliable evidence that toxic substances lurk in our food, air, and water? No. Upon closer examination, it is clear that the frightening headlines misrepresent the true story about dioxin. There is a sizeable difference between what the media says about dioxin and what the scientific community believes.

First, the EPA report is only a “draft report” that has not yet been reviewed either by the EPA’s own science advisory board or by outside independent scholars. This is important, because scientific reports often undergo substantial revision during academic review. Dr. Lynn Goldman, an EPA spokesman, has said “it is still preliminary, still subject to scientific and interagency review, and quite likely to see some changes. Therefore, it would be inappropriate to draw conclusions from it at this point.”

Second, the EPA report does not, as one newspaper headline claimed, “affirm health dangers from dioxin.” The report stops short of saying dioxin is a known cause of cancer in humans, and it calls for more research on other possible effects of dioxin on human health. This, too, is important: Scientists have been searching for evidence of a link between cancer and dioxin for over twenty years. Clear evidence of such a link is still missing, after an examination that runs to 2,000 pages and three volumes. This should give us pause.

A third problem overlooked by media accounts is that, in the EPA’s own words, the report does “not address questions of dioxin policy or regulatory action.” The report does not call for more strict regulation of dioxin emissions. Indeed, following a complete review of its “draft assessment” by the scientific community, the EPA may decide that further regulation is unnecessary. Dioxin levels are, after all, already falling rapidly.

Many people concerned by a potential threat to their health and the health of their loved ones may consider this nitpicking. Why not do everything possible to reduce dioxin emissions just in case? There is a compelling reason not to: Eliminating the last molecule of man-made dioxin will cost billions of dollars a year and destroy thousands of jobs, all without saving a single human life. And if the zero-tolerance campaign expands to engulf chlorine and the many consumer products based on chlorine chemistry, the cost in terms of dollars and lost jobs will skyrocket.

There is, in fact, sound scientific research that dioxin poses little or no threat to our health. For example, scientists and physicians have carefully monitored the health of persons accidentally exposed to dioxin, in some cases at levels thousands of times greater than those any of us will ever face. These studies have found no evidence of cancer or other adverse health effects.

Why, then, do many environmentalists try to make dioxin Public Enemy Number One? One reason is that laboratory studies show dioxin to be extremely toxic to guinea pigs, and some observers conclude that dioxin is similarly toxic to other animals, including humans. This assumption has been proven wrong. Indeed, the dose required to kill a hamster is 5,000 times as much as the lethal dose for guinea pigs!

Another reason for the false alarm is that a small number of small-scale, unreplicated, and unreliable epidemiologic studies seem to show an association between dioxin and cancer. Environmentalists jump on these studies because they make good fodder for fundraising letters; the media publicizes them because they generate good ratings and sell newspapers. Thousands of other studies showing no such link are going unreported, but the average reader and television viewer has no way of knowing this.

We are all the poorer for this skewed and incomplete public debate over dioxin. Instead of focusing our attention on genuine threats to public health and the environment, we waste billions of dollars (and destroy thousands or even millions of jobs) chasing one hyped crisis after another. This is real money that could have been used to cure deadly diseases, or to protect truly endangered species. And real people and their families are hurt when jobs are destroyed in the reckless drive to ban or eliminate relatively harmless substances.

As the national debate over dioxin continues, we can count on government officials and environmental groups to demand the complete elimination of dioxin from every man-made source, regardless of science and regardless of cost. And we can expect industry spokesmen to say they already have made great strides in reducing dioxin emissions (which is true), and that they are willing to work for further reductions. They are not stupid: They know their companies cannot afford to be branded with the “anti-environment” label.

What we cannot expect, though, is an honest admission from any of the players in this sorry spectacle that public concern over the threat of dioxin greatly exceeds the real risk, or that the money being spent reducing dioxin levels could better be spent elsewhere. And that should concern us all.

Joseph Bast is president of The Heartland Institute and coauthor of Eco-Sanity: A Common-Sense Guide to Environmentalism (Lanham, MD: Madison Books, 1994).