Commentary: Is EPA Cooking the Books on Dioxin?

July 7, 2008 - 8:29 PM

If he makes it past a bruising Senate confirmation process, Utah Governor and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator-designate Mike Leavitt will soon face an even bigger challenge.

How does he deal with an entrenched EPA bureaucracy that is perfectly willing to put its own narrow regulatory interests above those of the public it is supposed to serve?

As Leavitt prepares to take the reins at the EPA, the agency is set to release its long-awaited reassessment of dioxin. But the document the EPA is about to foist on the public has set off alarm bells in Congress where lawmakers rightly fear that the agency has sacrificed science for the sake of expanding its already vast regulatory empire.

Eleven years in the making, the EPA study is supposed to review the scientific data to determine whether exposure to dioxin in the environment poses any significant risk to human health. The EPA's findings could then serve as the basis for regulating the sources of dioxin emissions.

Dioxin, albeit in trace amounts, is ubiquitous in the environment; its sources are both natural and man-made. It is the inevitable by-product of incineration, uncontrolled burning, and certain industrial processes.

Regulatory restrictions on emissions, coupled with dramatic strides in industrial technology such as the improved design and operation of waste combustors, have led to sharp declines in dioxin in the environment.

EPA's own data show a 92 percent reduction in dioxin emissions since 1987. As
industrial emissions have declined, so, too, has human exposure to dioxin in the food supply, the most common route of exposure.

A study published this year by the journal Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology estimated that the average American has a seven-fold lower "body burden" (a person's level of exposure) of dioxin today than was the case 30 years ago, and that the levels will continue to decline for at least the next two decades.

These trends, the study says, "...do not indicate a public health basis for actions in reducing food levels [of dioxin] and thus, general population exposures."

These findings were echoed by a recent report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which concluded that actual blood levels of dioxin in the average U.S. resident are below the level of analytical detection.

But instead of touting the plummeting dioxin emissions as the environmental success story they demonstrably are, the EPA's reassessment indicates a preference for a "reference dose," or national standard, that could to be set anywhere between 100 and 1,000 times lower than the current average daily intake of dioxin for people living in the U.S.

Such a standard for dioxin exposure would be far more stringent than levels deemed acceptable by the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, the World Health Organization, a joint panel of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Committee, and even the hyper-regulatory European Commission.

By setting a regulatory standard for exposure to dioxin at an absurdly low level, EPA could declare open season on every imaginable manmade source of dioxin, from incinerators and automobiles to the nation's food supply.

Approximately 95 percent of our daily exposure to dioxin comes from trace elements of the substance that concentrate in animal fats. If this is such a big problem, why does EPA constantly assure the public that America's food supply is among the safest and most nutritious in the world?

Fearful that the agency was cooking the books on dioxin, Rep. James T. Walsh (R-N.Y.), chairman of the House Appropriation Committee's subcommittee on VA, HUD, and independent agencies, has twice - in February 2002 and again in February of this year - asked the EPA to submit its dioxin reassessment to the National Academy of Sciences for independent review.

Walsh's requests have fallen on deaf ears. Stiffing Congress has done little to allay the suspicion that EPA doesn't want an independent entity mucking around in its handling of dioxin.

Any such mucking around would, among other things, reveal that the greatest source of dioxin in the U.S. is forest fires. The giant infernos cutting a swath of death, destruction, and environmental degradation in the West are also releasing substantial amounts of dioxin into the environment. And the nation's second biggest source of dioxin is the mostly unregulated practice of backyard trash burning prevalent in many rural areas of the country.

Just as Willie Sutton famously robbed banks because "that's where the money is," those seriously interested in reducing emissions of dioxin should both support the Bush administration's efforts to restore health to the nation's forests and discourage the use of backyard burn barrels.

In the meantime, the EPA could make Mr. Leavitt's job a lot easier by not thumbing its nose at Congress and by submitting its "science" to independent peer review.

Bonner R. Cohen is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research in Washington, DC.