Dioxin Freaks Unite

We’ve been through a week of exemplary astrology — really beautiful stuff: the Jupiter-Chiron sextile, which Mercury comes dancing through; the signs Taurus and Pisces involved; and Jupiter sitting right on the discovery degree of Chiron. I’ve long associated Chiron with environmental issues and the healing of the Earth. No sooner did I ask my question — how is it that the dioxin issue surfaced in a big way today, and has been popping up in smaller ways for many weeks — than I had my answer, at least from an astrological standpoint. Frankly you would think that working as a dioxin activist would drive anyone to be an astrologer, but it’s only happened once.

It's not an aspect -- it's dioxin, the most toxic chemical. To be precise, it's 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-para-dioxin, or 2,3,7,8 TCDD for short. Note the distinctive, extremely stable double benzene ring, the bonded-on chlorine and the two oxygen molecules that make it flat and therefore deadly. If it was an aspect it would be a grand sextile -- note the six-sided shape of the benzene ring. That's why dioxin is so persistent. Benzene rings last a long time.

It's not an aspect -- it's dioxin, the most toxic chemical. To be precise, it's 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-para-dioxin, or 2,3,7,8 TCDD for short. Note the distinctive, extremely stable double benzene ring, the bonded-on chlorine and the two oxygen molecules that make it flat and therefore deadly. If it was an aspect it would be a grand sextile -- note the six-sided shape of the benzene ring. That's why dioxin is so persistent. Benzene rings last a long time.

Environmental toxins issues move so slowly and against such odds it’s amazing they get anywhere, ever. But occasionally they do. The standout event today was the EPA finally, after some 20 years, releasing its reassessment of the toxicity of dioxin.

This study — really, a review of every known study — has been brewing since the 1990s, which cannot have been 20 years ago but it was, amidst truly incredible scandals.

Those astonishing scandals (hardly the first in history; the story of dioxin is the story of nonstop coverups) were so successful at obfuscating the issues that I’ve only seen dioxin covered (or even mentioned) on television about three or four times in all of those 20 years, when really it’s so significant it should be discussed every night.

Dioxin is bad for fetuses. It’s bad for the female and male reproductive systems. It’s bad for any animal (plants don’t seem to mind it, but then animals eat the plants).

How bad is bad? So bad you’re not supposed to know about it. Let’s see if I can get the backstory into one paragraph. In the early 1990s, the paper industry wanted to cover up the growing awareness of the extreme, as in ridiculous, toxicity of dioxin. So they commissioned a reassessment of that toxicity by the EPA, figuring that they could run their coverup from there. But as the data started coming in, it was damning. Dioxin was far worse than they thought, it affected more organ systems at lower levels and more was in the environment than they suspected. The reassessment ran out of control and became the international headquarters for proving how bad the stuff really is. That was largely thanks to two scientists: Dr. William Farland and Dr. Cate Jenkins, two people who actually understood the problem.

Okay, second paragraph. So with that not working out as planned, then came phase 2. The federal Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta working in cahoots with the paper industry, this thing funded by the Rev. Moon (of Moonie fame, close friend of the Bush family) called the “Wise Use Movement” (think: bullshit supposedly grassroots movement with billionaire funding) of farmers calling for the “wise use” of pesticides and herbicides (i.e., not banning them as should happen), and two reporters — Keith Schneider at the New York Times and Malcolm Gladwell at the Washington Post (yes, that Malcolm Gladwell) ran a little detoxifying campaign and between them all, convinced the public and the press that dioxin was “safe” and killed the dioxin story. This really happened; click that link if you’re curious.

This was all going on in the peak of my work on the SUNY New Paltz Dioxin Dorms case, so I had a front row seat. That was it: story dead, reassessment of dioxin forgotten in the wake of the Bill Clinton impeachment and the stolen election of Cheney and Bush (whose EPA of course was not going to resurrect the issue) and, we thought, that was that. And that was a long time ago. Like, 14 years ago.

Then today an email comes floating into my inbox, suggesting that I might be interested in this. The reassessment of dioxin’s toxicity had finally been released. We’ve been in a timewarp week — two aspirin between the knees, all men on the female contraception panel, political candidates who want to ban sex, and so on. And from two decades out of the past but with today’s date, I read:

After 21 years of wrangling over health threats, uncertain science and industry pressure, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Friday released its health assessment of dioxins defining how toxic they are.

A group of about 30 toxic compounds, including the infamous chemical in Agent Orange, dioxins are byproducts of combustion emitted by waste incinerators, chemical manufacturing plants, paper and pulp mills and other facilities. They persist in the environment and build up in the food supply and in human bodies.

Lauded by environmental activists and criticized by industry, the report concluded after reviewing mounds of evidence that there are potentially serious effects at ultra-low levels of exposure. Studies have linked dioxins to cancer, disrupted hormones, reproductive damage such as reduced sperm counts, neurological effects in children and adults, immune system changes and skin disorders.

My friends and I have not read the report or analyzed it ourselves. We don’t know what it really says on all of its thousands of pages, but we’re very familiar with the drafts that kept coming out in the 1990s. Unless the results have been totally reversed, it’s not going to be good for industry, which is exactly what we want. One critical number is apparently the same: the body burden threshold of 7 parts per trillion in human fatty (adipose) tissue. If that is really true, then it’s a very good sign.

Industry has gotten away with lying about the toxicity of dioxin for many decades (dioxin, a trace contaminant in chemical processes involving chlorine, was discovered in 1949). We all breathe in a little with every breath — that’s how pervasive it is. We eat a little with every bite of food, especially animal fats. It’s a miracle that this report is out at all; that the word “dioxin” is anywhere near the news.

But Monona Rossol, founder of Arts, Crafts and Theater Safety in Manhattan and a dioxin specialist, was cautious in her response. “The public has plenty of things to worry about,” she said Friday, responding to the issue of the dioxin reassessment. “Once they scratch something off the list, it’s hard to get it back on.”

Meanwhile, a French farmer won a lawsuit this week against Monsanto for poisoning him with a product called Lasso. Dow Chemical is at war with farmers over their 2,4-D resistant corn. (What is 2,4-D? It’s 50% of what Agent Orange was made of, and is contaminated with dioxin.) In Oregon, residents of forested areas are waking up and protesting aerial spraying of their forests. That issue has bobbed above the surface and sunk back down on and off since the 1970s. Uprisings are happening in a number of places at once, in the Coast Range, in and near Eugene, and in southern Oregon. (Also in California, particularly around the Sacramento delta areas where 2,4-D and other herbicides are routinely dumped into public waterways and sloughs to control aquatic weeds that flourish from all the sewage.)

And lately (coincidentally, around the 20th anniversary of the event) I’ve been in touch with many students from SUNY New Paltz who know they got sick from living in the dorms. Then tonight I met someone who grew up in the Love Canal neighborhood and got into a long chat; she turns out to live about three blocks away from me. (I covered Love Canal in 1983 as a student journalist, and that was my first dioxin story.)

These issues sleep for years before they go anywhere, and now in the past few weeks, they’re all waking up at once, with a big concentration as the Jupiter-Chiron sextile has been forming (which really goes back several months and which peaked this week). Why ever this is all moving, it is, and I’m happy to be on the ride again. I’ve been talking to some of my old, great friends from this movement, and people are excited. (I’m still looking for Bill Farland, Cate Jenkins, Gerson Smoger, Bill Snyder and a few other folks, in case you’ve seen them lately.)

I don’t know if we’ll prevail, but we will have fun. Dioxin Freaks Unite.


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