The EPA's Weak Stance on Nasty, Immune System-Wrecking Dioxins

Only after a decade of analysis, and long after the WHO and EU, will the EPA release a risk assessment of dioxins in our food supply.

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Dioxins are nasty chemicals. They are human carcinogens. They cause reproductive problems, wreck the immune system, and interfere with hormonal production. The World Health Organization ranks them among the "Dirty Dozen," a group made up of organic toxins that persist in the environment (and our bodies) for decades.

Although they are produced mainly by industrial processes, more than 90 percent of the dioxins in our bodies get there through our food -- particularly meat, dairy products, and fish.

Given their ubiquity -- and toxicity -- it stands to reason that government health officials would have long ago determined what levels of dioxins are safe in our food supply and would have set appropriate standards.

The EPA relied on "grossly inadequate exposure and consumption data, coupled with badly flawed statistical approaches."

But when has reason triumphed in matters related to food safety? It wasn't until last August that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), after nearly a decade of analysis, announced that it would be releasing a risk assessment of dioxins in food, due out sometime this month.

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Caroline Smith DeWaal, the food safety director of the consumer group Center for Science in the Public Interest, praised the EPA's decision.

But food industry groups wasted no time in condemning it. "EPA should exercise as much thought and care as possible about the reassessment's possible impact on consumer attitudes, purchasing decisions, and consumption patterns," the Food Industry Dioxin Working Group (PDF) wrote in comments about the proposed guidelines. The group's members include the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, the International Dairy Foods Association, the National Fisheries Council, the National Pork Producers Council, and the Corn Refiners Association.

The consortium complained that the dioxin reassessment's "focus on food" is beyond the EPA's area of authority. The EPA, according to the industry group, relied on "grossly inadequate exposure and consumption data, coupled with badly flawed statistical approaches." The group took the EPA to task for forecasting risks over a lifespan of 70 years, because, it said, dioxin levels in the environment might drop over that time. The guidelines and the report, it said, are "irrelevant to human health. Yet [being relevant to human health] is just how it will be perceived by the consuming public and the media if it is released in its current form."

It's difficult to see how anyone can consider issues surrounding potentially fatal poisons as irrelevant to human health. The European Union and World Health Organization have already established safe limits for dioxins in food. They are weaker than those proposed by the EPA, but in the case of dioxins, any limitations are better than none -- which is what we might end up with if the food companies succeed in silencing the EPA scientists.

Image: LiliGraphie/Shutterstock.

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Barry Estabrook is a former contributing editor at Gourmet magazine. He is the author of the recently released Tomatoland, a book about industrial tomato agriculture. He blogs at politicsoftheplate.com. More

Barry Estabrook was formerly a contributing editor at Gourmet magazine. Stints working on a dairy farm and commercial fishing boat as a young man convinced him that writing about how food was produced was a lot easier than actually producing it. He is the author of the recently released Tomatoland, a book about industrial tomato agriculture. He lives on a 30-acre tract in Vermont, where he gardens and tends a dozen laying hens, and his work also appears at politicsoftheplate.com.

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