EPA panel agrees dioxin poses cancer risk

Wednesday, May 16th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ A long-stalled government study that says dioxin causes cancer in laboratory animals and possibly in people finally will be sent to federal regulators _ and put another far-reaching environmental issue in the Bush administration's lap.

The study's conclusion that chlorinated dioxin is an air pollutant that should be more tightly controlled could affect everything from milk, beef and fish to medical products and the chemical and paper industries.

A scientific advisory committee for the Environmental Protection Agency voted unanimously Tuesday to send its report, more than a decade in the making, to EPA Administrator Christie Whitman. The findings could provide the basis for federal regulators to impose limits on dioxin that go beyond current voluntary controls and would be costly to the chemical, beef and poultry industries that have opposed them.

William Glaze, a University of North Carolina professor who chairs the advisory panel, called the report ``a huge step forward'' toward possibly stricter controls. He said its key finding is that ``diet is the principal root of exposure'' for people who consume even small amounts of dioxin in dairy products and fatty foods.

``We think that the agency should take action to continue to try to limit emissions of dioxin in the environment. How the agency chooses to do that is up to them,'' Glaze said in an interview. ``This committee felt that regulating emissions is desirable.''

He said his panel planned to send the report to Whitman by June 1. Whitman repeatedly has declined to comment on the report and how her agency intends to use it.

Industry groups question the science behind it. Marcie Francis of the Chlorine Chemistry Council told Glaze's panel that ``great uncertainty remains in our understanding of the effects of dioxin and dioxin-like compounds.''

Environmental groups were pleased the report is going forward since not having it done ``has been a stumbling block for community groups and elected officials who have been working together to develop strong dioxin regulations,'' said Monica Rohde, the dioxin campaign coordinator for the Center for Health, Environment and Justice.

While agreeing that dioxin causes cancer in laboratory animals, the committee split over whether to classify the chemical as a known human carcinogen, as it did in a draft report a year ago.

Instead, the new version says: ``It is important that EPA continue to try to limit emissions and human exposure to this class of chemicals in view of their very long biological and environmental persistence.''

Chlorinated dioxin is an air pollutant that comes from burning plastic and medical waste with chlorine. It settles in grass and feed, which is then eaten and becomes fat in livestock and poultry.

Dioxin also is a generic term for a group of compounds, some of which are more toxic than others.

The contaminant used in Agent Orange, a defoliant sprayed during the Vietnam War, includes the most toxic form of dioxin. Agent Orange exposure has been associated with cancer, birth defects and miscarriages, though a direct link to those health problems remain unproven.

But a new study released Tuesday by American researchers shows a high level of dioxin among residents of a South Vietnamese city and suggests that once it enters the environment, dioxin remains a persistent source of contamination for generations to come.