- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 18, 2000

Federal environmental regulators have some bad news for Ben & Jerry's. Spooning out Earth-friendly policy prescriptions with its ice cream, the company nonetheless turns out to be manufacturing a product with an ingredient that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) now flatly calls a "known human carcinogen" dioxin.

The Washington Post reported Wednesday that the agency is getting ready to release a draft report which suggests the chemical, an unwanted byproduct of a variety of both industrial and natural processes that filters up through the food chain to man, is far more potent and dangerous than it originally thought. Persons who consume large amounts of fatty foods such as meat and dairy products could face cancer risks as high as one in 100, the agency said. (As it happens, Ben & Jerry's has a very high butterfat content.) Children are said to be especially susceptible because of the relatively high amount of dairy products including breast milk they consume. "It's the Darth Vader of toxic chemicals," a cancer epidemiologist at Boston University told the paper.

What's a Cherry Garcia lover to do? The agency says the findings shouldn't discourage people from eating nutritious foods and following dietary guidelines emphasizing low-fat foods which doesn't really answer the question. The company, which does not deny the presence of small amounts of dioxin in its ice cream, did not respond to calls for comment. The wholly unscientific advice of this column is: Have a second helping.

It's true that the situation is an awkward and possibly deceptive one for Ben & Jerry's in that the company advertises that its packaging is dioxin-free … without mentioning that the ice cream itself contains trace amounts of the chemical. A public interest group, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, has filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission, accusing the company of false advertising.

That doesn't mean the chemical is a serious health risk, however. Environmentalists have been attacking dioxin for years as a proxy for industry because it is born of the some of the processes that generates some of their most-wanted villains: herbicides, gasoline and paper and pulp. By attacking dioxin as a possible human carcinogen, greens could indirectly threaten those industries.

After more than a decade, though, neither environmentalists nor federal regulators have been able to come up with the peer-reviewed science as opposed to the EPA variety to classify it as such. The findings on which the agency is basing its latest anti-dioxin campaign don't meet that standard either. The evidence to date suggests it never will.

Dioxin first gained notoriety in the mid-1970s after thousands of gallons of waste oil were sprayed in the Missouri community of Times Beach to keep down the dust from unpaved roads. After a flood spread the oil and its contaminant, dioxin, through the town, federal officials measured levels of dioxin in the soil of as much as 1,000 times what the government considered a safe level. Panic set in. Based on lab tests showing that rats exposed to high doses of the stuff developed cancer, the government ordered the total evacuation of Times Beach at a cost of $33 million.

Watching the ensuing melee, a worried American Medical Association approved a convention resolution to create a public information campaign "to prevent irrational reaction and unjustified public fright and to prevent the dissemination of possibly erroneous information about the health hazards of dioxin." When the expected cancers in the exposed population never showed up, federal officials conceded their error. In a 1991 New York Times article bearing the headline, "Times Beach Warning: Regrets a Decade Later," the man who ordered the evacuation, C. Vernon Houk, said it was a mistake. "Times Beach was an over-reaction," he said. "It was based on the best scientific information we had at the time. It turns out we were in error."

Despite the evidence, EPA ramped up the panic again in 1994. Much as it did this week, the agency leaked findings linking dioxin to cancer as part of a very public campaign to toughen environmental regulations regarding the chemical. Only later did the agency submit the findings to formal peer review, to something less than applause. Said the EPA's Science Advisory Board in September 1995, "[A]lmost all of the members of the committee conclude that the presentation of scientific findings portrayed in the draft document's conclusions is not balanced vis—vis the possible risk posed by exposure to dioxin, with a tendency to overstate the possibilities of danger." The consensus of the panel was that the "only lesion of note" from dioxin exposure was chloracne, a skin problem that while undesirable is hardly as undesirable as cancer.

One would have hoped the agency had learned its lesson by now, but the pattern appears to be repeating itself. If EPA ends up scaring people away from sound eating habits, it would do more harm than good. Given the choice of two health risks allegedly toxic chocolate from Ben & Jerry's or EPA policy go with the ice cream.

E-mail: smithk@twtmail.com

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