Monday, August 25, 2003

It’s not news that the Environmental Protection Agency is out of control. Still, the agency’s underhandedness never ceases to amaze.

Three years ago, the EPA released a draft of its scientific reassessment of dioxin, the poster child for hysteria over chemicals in the environment.

The EPA’s preliminary, unreviewed conclusions were alarming and drew the attention of Congress, which requested the agency seek independent review of the reassessment.

Two years later, the EPA is still ignoring the congressional request — no doubt because the agency’s dioxin reassessment won’t withstand scientific scrutiny.

Dioxin is a byproduct of natural and manmade processes and is ubiquitous in our environment, food, water and bodies, albeit at very low levels. It has been called the “most toxic manmade substance” by environmental extremists.

Cooler heads, though, know the levels of dioxin humans typically may be exposed to are harmless and that alarm over dioxin is silly. A single serving of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, for example, has been measured to contain about 2,000 times the amount of dioxin that the EPA claims is safe according to its new assessment.

And who’s afraid of Chunky Monkey?

The EPA has not yet explicitly articulated a regulatory standard for human exposure to dioxin — called a “reference dose,” the maximum estimated daily exposure for which there is no appreciable risk of noncancer health effects. But the agency’s draft reassessment indicates a reference dose might be set anywhere from 100 to 1,000 times lower than the current average daily intake of dioxin for an individual in the U.S.

The EPA’s “science” is obviously absurd — a point made even more apparent by considering other government standards for dioxin.

The U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry says dioxin exposures on the order of 1 billionth of a gram per kilogram of body weight per day are acceptable. A joint committee of the United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Committee and World Health Organization says exposure levels 2.3 times greater than ATSDR’s standard are acceptable.

Left to its own devices, though, the EPA might set a limit 1,000 times lower than these standards. It’s no wonder Congress was skeptical and requested an independent review of the dioxin reassessment.

Toward that end and as part of the EPA’s 2002 budget, Congress asked that the agency contract with the National Academy of Sciences for the review. The request was not fulfilled and Congress reiterated it in 2003.

Congress specifically requested that the National Academy examine certain controversies, including:

(1) Whether dioxin is a “known” human carcinogen as the EPA claims or whether its potential cancer-causing effect is less certain.

(2) Whether any exposure to dioxin, no matter how small, poses a health risk vs. whether exposures below a certain “threshold” are safe.

(3) And whether chemicals that are dioxinlike, but not dioxin, should be lumped together with dioxin without individual scientific review of their potential health effects.

Though existing national and international exposure standards for dioxin are based on the risk of noncancer health effects, Congress’ questions about dioxin’s potential to cause or promote cancer are key to the EPA’s scheme to frame dioxin — and, most importantly, to increase its regulatory authority.

The EPA has always wanted to conclude that dioxin is “known” to cause cancer in humans and that cancer risk increases with even the smallest — that is, “any”—exposure.

If “any” exposure to dioxin increased cancer risk, the EPA might claim justification in setting extremely stringent health and environmental standards for dioxin — thereby circumventing less stringent dioxin standards set by the rest of the world.

Very stringent standards would provide the EPA with potentially unlimited regulatory authority over any source of dioxin emissions, including industrial plants, incinerators, automobiles and even home fireplaces. And imagine the food scares that the environmentalists would likely attempt.

It now seems the EPA may sidestep the dioxin reassessment and Congress altogether.

The EPA’s internal “Science Policy Council” has recommended that, instead of relying on the reassessment, agency staff cherry-pick studies in the scientific literature that support agency goals.

The trade publication Chemical Policy Alert reported last week that the Science Policy Council urged the EPA’s Office of Water to cite alternative studies to justify an EPA rule setting new standards for land-applied biosolids.

“The word is out from the SPC. You can’t cite the draft reassessment, but you can cite [other] scientific studies,”said an EPA staffer according to Chemical Policy Alert.

The dioxin reassessment has been 11 years in the making (cooking up?) at the EPA. The agency’s independent Science Advisory Board, which has been heavily critical of the reassessment, is tired of its comments falling on deaf ears.

It is time for Congress to stop politely “requesting” that the EPA’s dioxin reassessment be reviewed by the National Academy of Sciences and sternly “order” that it be done immediately.

Steven Milloy is the publisher of, an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute and the author of “Junk Science Judo: Self-defense Against Health Scares and Scams” (Cato Institute, 2001).

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