Behind the scene

Dioxins are extremely persistent and all pervasive. Yet its politics tries to undermine the danger

Last Updated: Sunday 07 June 2015

Behind the scene

-- (Credit: Graphic: Anand Singh Rawat)Dioxins are among the deadliest chemicals known to humans. These chemicals are by-products of industrial processes. They dissolve readily in oils, fats and non-polar solvents. These chemicals are not volatile and are extremely persistent. Since dioxins are fat-soluble, they bioaccumulate up the food chain. dioxin compounds are transported through the atmosphere as vapours or attached to air borne particulates and can be deposited on soils, plants or other surfaces. They enter water bodies by direct deposition from the atmosphere or by surface runoff and erosion. From soils, these compounds can reenter the atmosphere either as resuspended soil particles or as vapours. In water, they can be resuspended into it from sediments or become buried in deeper sediments.

Dioxins are released mostly from burning of chlorinated compounds e.g, from garbage, medical waste and toxic chemicals.Dioxins from incinerators contaminate the air, water and food passing these deadly pollutants on to people through milk, meat and other fatty animal products. Bleaching of paper with chlorinated compounds, production of pvc plastics, chlorinated pesticides and secondary smeltering of copper also produce dioxins. Essentially, to produce dioxin we need organic matter, chlorine and a reactive thermal environment.

Despite knowing their carcinogenic nature, there is no monitoring of these chemicals in most countries. And where they are monitored, the dioxin politics is extremely intense. In the us , awareness about dioxins has generated much debate. Just when the Hanoi meeting was underway, the us was awaiting the us Environmental Protection Agency's ( epa s) Science Advisory Board's ( sab s) final report on the decade-long study evaluating the potential dangers dioxins pose to humans. But the long-overdue report never came. The report has been mired in controversy since 1980 when the epa prepared its first draft which revealed that dioxins pose a threat to human health. The report also pointed to chemical multinational Dow Chemical as a major source of dioxins. However, when the report was published by epa headquarters, all references to public health and Dow Chemical were deleted and many epa scientists were forced to resign.

In 1984, epa released its first official risk estimate for dioxins showing them to be the most potent synthetic carcinogen ever tested. And as a reaction in 1991, the chlor-alkali industry-group backed organisation, Chlorine Institute, sponsored the infamous Banbury conference in which independent scientists were not invited. The Institute paid consultant George Carlo, an epidemiologist, to bring out a feel-good report on dioxins ,who made an announcement to the Press that "there has been a 'consensus' on a safe limit for dioxin". In September 1994, the epa dioxin reassessment final draft was released reaffirming that dioxins can cause cancer. As expected, the industry scientists rejected several chapters in the draft document, forcing the agency to rewrite them, thereby delaying the process of finalizing the report. After a six-year delay, finally, in June 2000, the epa released a revision of the 1994 reassessment report. And epa found even stronger links between exposure to dioxin and adverse impacts on human health: a fact that the industry groups never wanted the public to know. The industry intensified its aggressive stalling efforts and bottled up the final report due for release in July 2001. Economic stakes were high and the political allies came to their rescue. The release of the final epa report would have meant expensive consequences to the us chemical, beef and poultry industries. Besides, it also entailed far-reaching implications for public health policy of the us government.

"The chemical industry continues to use its backdoor influence to preserve its profits at the expense of public health," says Lois Marie Gibbs of the Stop Dioxin Exposure Campaign. Senior Greenpeace International scientist, Pat Costner regrets , " epa is not officially releasing the report because the fear is that once it is released then regulatory policies will have to follow. While the environmentalists are pushing for its official release, the chemical industry is trying to scuttle it."

The politics appears to go deep and reveals how strong lobbies work hand in glove with the government to have their way. According to the us -based Centre for Responsive Politics, an independent organisation, the chemical, livestock and meatpacking industries contributed us $ 1,71,000 to Bush's campaign last year. A report from the Stop Dioxin Exposure Campaign titled Behind Closed Doors discloses: in the early 1990s the chemical industry started getting more involved in electoral politics as a way of ensuring that it would have a say in policy decision making. And Frederick Webber, president of the American Chemistry Council ( acc ), became one of Bush's "Pioneers", a group of distinguished business leaders that pledged to raise at least us $1,00,000 for Bush's Presidential Campaign. According to Newsweek , the acc raised over us $3,50,000 for the Bush campaign. "Webber concedes that this generosity is directly related to Bush's willingness to listen to the industry's views," the magazine had reported.

Politics aside, the health impact of dioxins have been clearly brought out by epa in the us . The epa 's report last year recommended a diet with lower animal fat to prevent dioxin exposure. In reaction, more than 200 public interest groups sent a letter to the then us P resident Bill Clinton stating that changing their diet was not the answer. They wanted to eliminate dioxins at source. According to Lois Gibbs, director of the Centre for Health, Environment and Justice, "Changing the individual's diet is a band-aid approach that blames consumers, rather than putting the blame where it belongs -- on the polluters."

Although the epa report has been blocked, in a landmark decision on July 24, 2001, a federal appeals court ordered the us government to rewrite standards for hazardous waste incinerators and cement kilns, ruling that the nation lacked proper limits on airborne emissions of dioxins. It is expected that as more judicial pressure is put on the government, the day is not far when the final epa report is made public.

Internationally infamous
There is a fast recognition worldwide that incineration is a dirty option and should be grounded

Dioxin scare was responsible for the toppling of the Belgian coalition government in 1999. Milk, eggs, dairy products, pork and beef products exported by Belgium were tainted with dioxin found in animal feed. This was tracked to the waste from pcb oils, illegally disposed of into food oils. The European Commission (EC) initiated proceedings against Belgium for violating European Union rules on consumer protection and information.

Like Belgium, Britain is also being haunted by the ghost of the foot and mouth disease, which spelt terror last year. Britain's Food Standards Agency (FSA) has recently said that dioxins from giant foot and mouth funeral pyres may have contaminated milk in nearby farms. The agency has informed dairy farmers about the possibility of higher levels of dioxins present in dairy herds within two kilometres of the pyres.

The dioxin alarm for the Europeans is getting louder and louder. In May 2000, the European Scientific Committee on Food (SCF) found that 80 per cent of human exposure to dioxins is from food of animal origin such as fish, meat and dairy products. While warning that the current average daily human dietary intake of dioxins in Europe is 1.2-3 pg/kg body weight, and has found high levels of dioxins in seafood in Europe.

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