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EPA misses deadline to issue dioxin health assessment

Imerman Park sits on the floodplain of the Tittabawassee River. Signs along the trail warn walkers about dioxin contamination in some of the park's soil.
Photo by Shawn Allee
Imerman Park sits on the floodplain of the Tittabawassee River. Signs along the trail warn walkers about dioxin contamination in some of the park's soil.

The Environmental Protection Agency has missed its own deadline to release a major report on the health effects of dioxins. Dioxins are a class of toxic chemicals.

The EPA says dioxins are likely to cause cancer in humans. Since the mid-1980’s, the EPA has been working to define just how toxic dioxins are. Over the years, the agency has released drafts of the report. These drafts have been picked apart by scientists and industry. Then, the EPA goes back to working on it.

Last year, the EPA decided to split its dioxin assessment into two parts. One part will look at cancer risks; the other part will look at non-cancer health risks. The agency had promised to release the report on non-cancer effects by the end of January. But they missed that deadline.

The EPA did not want to be recorded for this story. They would only say they’re “working to finalize the non-cancer health assessment for dioxin as expeditiously as possible.”

Living with dioxin pollution

People in central Michigan have lived with dioxin pollution for more than three decades. The pollution is largely from a Dow Chemical plant in Midland. We’ve previously reported that EPA’s dioxin assessment could affect how much dioxin Dow might have to clean up.

Michelle Hurd Riddick is with the Lone Tree Council. It’s an environmental advocacy group based in Saginaw.

“We need our government to issue a clear scientific statement and report on the toxicity of this chemical. But unfortunately, it appears it’s probably politics as usual. And the monied interests, the lobbyists, they have the access, they have the influence and you know, public health be damned.”

The EPA has been under pressure from industry groups.

A coalition of agriculture groups and food producers wrote to the White House to express concern about any new tougher limits on dioxin.  The EPA says the main way we're exposed to dioxin is through food.  Dioxins are in the environment as by-products of many industrial processes and some natural sources - and they can accumulate in high-fat meat and dairy products.  

The Food and Drug Administration has an extensive website with answers about dioxins and our exposure to the chemicals.  Here's an excerpt:

Dioxins decompose very slowly in the environment and can be deposited on plants and taken up by animals and aquatic organisms. Dioxins may be concentrated in the food chain so that animals have higher concentrations than plants, water, soil, or sediments. Within animals, dioxins tend to accumulate in fat. Most of the population has low-level exposure to dioxins. Although dioxins are environmental contaminants, most dioxin exposure occurs through the diet, with over 95% coming through dietary intake of animal fats.

You can read more about the food industry's concerns about the EPA's dioxin health assessment in an article from The Atlantic.

In December, the American Chemistry Council asked the EPA to withdraw the dioxin report from interagency review. In a statement emailed to The Environment Report yesterday, the ACC said a draft of the EPA’s dioxin assessment is flawed... and that the EPA has not considered the economic impact of the report.

Two years ago, The Environment Report produced an investigative series looking at why the dioxin cleanup in Michigan has been delayed for so long. The cleanup process has stopped and started for thirty years, with the federal and state governments passing the problem back and forth. In the series, former EPA Administrator Mary Gade said Dow has slowed down the cleanup.

“I think this corporation is hugely adept at playing the system and understanding how to build in delays and use the bureaucracy to their advantage and to use the political system to their advantage.”

In an email statement, a spokesperson for Dow said the company cannot speculate on how EPA’s dioxin assessment would affect their current work. The spokesperson noted that Dow signed a cleanup agreement with the EPA in January 2010, and said, “We are focused on implementing this agreement and working towards resolution.”

Rebecca Williams is senior editor in the newsroom, where she edits stories and helps guide news coverage.
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