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Book Preview - Introduction and Chapter 1

There are few, if any books whose goal is to show people what they can do to reduce toxic exposure and the risks of environmentally-induced illness. The following is an excerpt of a book that will do just that - it will be a guide to non-toxic or less-toxic living. If I were able to spend full-time working on it, it would be published by spring 1998. As it is, it will probably be more like summer or fall 1998.

Life In The Toxics

 

A Guide to Survival

In a Toxic World

 

By Jonathan Campbell

 

Dedication

This book is dedicated to Charlotte and Maury Sagoff of Acton, Mass. Charlottte, through her untiring efforts to organize, educate, and guide, and Maury, through his support, incredible grasp of the English language, and ability to add humor to most any situation, are a true environmental "tag-team."

It is also dedicated to Lois Gibbs, who re-awakened me to the new plague in her recent book Dying From Dioxin.

 

Introduction

 

This book is about your life and protecting yourself, your family, and your community from the harm that has become part of our environment and our culture. There are those who would have you believe that the environment is being protected and is getting better every day, or that the chemicals around us are not as toxic as previously believed. "U.S. Backing Away From Saying Dioxin is a Deadly Peril" trumpeted a now-famous front page article in the New York Times in 1991.

Nothing could be further from the truth. You probably know this from your own experience and from the health problems that we see all around us - an epidemic of cancer, asthma, and general ill-health. This book will tell you what is happening, why it is happening, and how you can still live a relatively healthy life.

What we are facing today is unprecedented in the earth's history. We have manufactured and surrounded ourselves with trillions of pounds of toxic substances, enough to threaten our health and enough to threaten life on earth itself. How did this happen?

In our constant quest for business profit and growth, we found ways to turn the earth's resources into "things" to be bartered, bought, and sold. Modern chemical engineering found ways to rip apart the essential building blocks of our natural world and put them back together in ways nature never intended. Had our culture not been driven by the profit motive, these chemical "miracles" might have been viewed as scientific oddities. Had there been a "Nature Review Board" to find out the possible effects on the environment and health, their massive introduction might have been stopped.

Instead, the businessmen who made or funded these discoveries - DuPont, Dow, and others - turned quickly to making money from them. Many of the horrendous or subtle health effects of the miracle chemicals were known right from the start, but the drive for corporate revenue was mightier than the conscience.

This book is about survival. It is about individual survival in a toxic world. It is about how you and your loved ones can dramatically reduce the chemical assault on your bodies through practical, easy steps. It is also about neighborhood and community survival - how you and your neighbors can reduce the threat together. Finally, it is about world survival. If we do nothing nationwide and worldwide, the threat will come to us via our water, air, and food. There are no Gardens of Eden, no places to hide from the toxic nightmare. Ultimately we must stop the corporate polluters before they extinguish life on earth in the pursuit of corporate profits.

In Part I of this book I will introduce you to the real toxic threats - the ones you do not read about in your daily newspaper or hear about on the six o'clock news. This information is not new, but it has been carefully left out from the public debate, perhaps because it is truly scary, and perhaps to shield those at fault from public view. In Part II I will introduce you to a new way of living, given your new awareness, which will allow you and your family to survive and live healthfully despite the toxic assault. In Part III of the book I will show you how you can introduce these ideas to your neighbors and friends so that together you can protect your community from toxic chemicals. Finally, I will talk about what I think will be necessary to make our communities - and the earth - healthy again.

I only hope that we are not too late. In Beyond The Limits systems researchers Dana Meadows and John Forrester wrote about the concept of an "overshoot," in which we don't see the consequences of our actions until years after the fact. There is evidence that cleanup efforts will need to accelerate to head off an environmental cataclysm. I would be gratified to know that this book helped in awakening people to the threat and helped them to take action.

 

 

Part I

What's the Problem?

 

Chapter 1

Dioxin at the Doorstep

A "new" toxic threat has made its way into the news. Dioxin, the most toxic of all known organic chemical substances, is now in our soil, our waterways, our homes, our food, and our bodies. Its toxic effects show themselves at concentrations of a few parts per trillion. That's one drop of dioxin in 300 Olympic-size swimming pools. Dioxin wreaks havoc by disrupting our hormones, our delicate chemical messaging system.

Dioxin is implicated in endometriosis. It is connected with Attention Deficit Disorder, autism, spina bifida (split spine) and horribly deformed reproductive systems in children. It is associated with miscarriages, cancer, diabetes, decreased sperm count, chronic fatigue syndrome, and other rare nervous and immune system disorders that are now becoming common.

Ironically this super-toxic chemical is produced simply as a result of combining free chlorine and natural or synthetic organic chemicals. Dioxin is formed during the manufacture of organochlorine (hydrocarbon chemicals and chlorine) plastics, such as polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and Saran, and chemical and pesticides such as perchloroethylene (dry cleaning fluid) and chlordane (used for termite control, but now banned). Simply using chlorine bleach to whiten paper at a paper mill or clothing in an ordinary household washing machine form dioxin.

So dioxin is not a new threat. It has been a threat since Henry Dow, the founder of Dow Chemical, experimented with combining organic chemicals with chlorine that he had split from seawater. Dioxin has polluted waterways and fish downstream of paper mills for decades. It has poisoned people near national forests and rights-of-way of utility lines sprayed with organochlorine herbicides. It affected Vietnam veterans and Vietnamese civilians sprayed with Agent Orange. Most pesticides on the market today are organochlorine chemicals, some of which are contaminated with dioxin. It is a threat wherever PVC and organochlorine plastics and chemicals are manufactured, molded, used, or tossed away. Massive amounts of dioxin (keep in mind that it is so toxic, a gram, or 1/30 of an ounce, is a massive amount) are formed when organochlorine plastics and chemicals are burned.

The PVC manufacturers have promoted their product to the point that it has become an integral part of our lives and our culture. We are literally surrounded by PVC products, from vinyl wallpaper to plastic-covered looseleaf binders. Our homes are floored with it (vinyl tile), wrapped with it (vinyl siding), and wired and plumbed with it (PVC wire insulation and plumbing pipe). Children's toys are made from it, as are room shades and some housings for personal computers. It is the most popular material in car interiors and seat covers. Leather-like personal accessories are made of PVC - briefcases, diaries, and cheap shoes. It is an essential ingredient in our throw-away culture.

It is the burning of PVC that has made dioxin the immediate threat that it is today, because of municipal trash and medical waste incineration. As landfills around the country began to fill up and pollute water supplies, incinerator manufacturers began to hawk their machines as the "final answer" to waste disposal. Incinerator activists refer to this as "creating dumps in the sky" as incineration just moves some of the toxic waste from the ground into the air. Burning PVC produces prolific amounts of dioxin from the incinerator stacks. It also leaves behind a legacy of millions of tons of incinerator ash, a super-toxic stew of dioxin, mercury, lead, and other nasty chemicals, far more toxic than the original materials. This ash is only worthy of landfilling in a hazardous waste facility were it not for a sleight-of-hand at the EPA.

Dioxin gets into our bodies primarily through the food we eat. Tiny incinerator ash particles with dioxin molecules clinging to them, from the hundreds of municipal and medical waste incinerators, are carried up to hundreds of miles to meat- and dairy-producing regions. The ash particles land on grass on grazing lands, onto the soybean, corn, and other crops destined for the feedlots, and into rivers, streams, and the ocean. Dioxin accumulates in an animal's fat. It does not biodegrade. Cows excrete it in their milk. Fish accumulate it by eating contaminated insects and plankton, and by accumulation through the massive amounts of dioxin-laden water they push through their gills.

All meat, dairy products, and fish - all foods at the top of the "food chain" - are significantly contaminated with dioxin. A typical hamburger today has about 100 picograms of dioxin (1 picogram is one trillionth of a gram), a contamination level of one part per trillion (a small hamburger weighs about 100 grams). That doesn't sound like much; indeed, most testing labs in the country wouldn't be able to detect that amount. Let's see what that amount of dioxin can do to you.

Dioxin is toxic because it is a powerful hormone disrupter. What does this mean? Dioxin disrupts the extremely delicate chemical messaging system common to all animals. This system provides all the basic checks and balances that allow our bodies to grow and age normally. It allows us to process proteins and sugars and turn them into energy, to feel and express emotions, and operate millions of other obvious and subtle mechanisms. It regulates the development of the fetus into an infant, the complex differentiation of cells.

Hormone disrupters like dioxin act at the molecular and cellular level. By occupying a hormone "receptor site" a single molecule of dioxin interferes with the proper operation of that site, sending random or improper signals to genes in the cell nucleus. A disrupted hormone site could cause the cell to wildly reproduce (a cancerous tumor), to reproduce the wrong type of tissue, or millions of other incorrect responses. So dioxin molecules can be thought of as tiny explosive bullets, wreaking havoc wherever they get attached. Once they attach, they don't seem to let go.

One picogram (one million millionth of a gram) of dioxin in your body is 1.8 billion dioxin molecules of dioxin, each of them having the potential of disrupting a hormone receptor. Suddenly those 100 picograms of dioxin in an ordinary hamburger are a huge problem: 180 billion tiny exploding bullets running amok all over your body.

Between 1991 and 1994, the EPA re-evaluated the toxicity of dioxin, pressured by the chemical industry to declare it safer than a previous evaluation. EPA scientists found that it was actually far more toxic than previously reported, and, ominously, that most of the population of the U.S. is at or near the level of dioxin that can cause visible adverse health effects. However, for reasons that I'll discuss later in this chapter, this report has remained in "draft" form and has not been formally released to the public.

What does this mean? It means that many of the cancers, strange diseases, birth defects, and horrible afflictions that have increased dramatically in the last 20-30 years are likely due to dioxin and dioxin-like chemicals that we have in our bodies now, today.

Dioxin is now strongly implicated with endometriosis, a nasty, potentially life-threatening syndrome in which cells that are supposed to grow only inside a woman's uterus appear mysteriously growing on the fallopian tubes, causing bleeding and pain. It affects more than five million women in the U.S. today. It was almost unknown fifty years ago. In one of the earliest dioxin toxicity experiments, chimpanzees given a diet contaminated with dioxin in the parts-per-trillion range - the same level as a normal American diet today - developed endometriosis.

Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), which afflicts many thousands of children in the U.S., has been positively associated with dioxin and dioxin-like chemical exposure during pregnancy and through breast-feeding. The dioxin in the mother's body, accumulated over the years from meat-eating, is passed through the placenta and breast milk.

We only need to look at what has happened in dioxin-contaminated communities to see what will now happen to all of us if the contamination continues. In Midland, Michigan, there are "clusters" of children with autism and spina bifida. Midland has the signal honor of being the only entire city in the U.S. to be declared an EPA Superfund site, due to widespread dioxin contamination. In Pensacola, Florida people were getting ill and dying from "Mt. Dioxin," a hill of toxic soil from the partial cleanup of a wood-processing plant that used dioxin-laced pentachlorophenol wood preservative.

Vietnam War veterans exposed to Agent Orange, the dioxin-laced herbicide used by U.S. forces to kill jungle growth, are afflicted with dozens of strange and obscure ailments, many of them deadly. In the Pacific Northwest, every first trimester pregnancy in the Alsea Basin spontaneously aborted after the nearby forest was sprayed with dioxin-contaminated herbicide.

I could go on with the litany of dioxin-related illnesses and afflictions, but that would be counterproductive. In the back of this book is a short appendix listing the illnesses and afflictions associated with dioxin exposure. Other books, such as Lois Gibbs' Dying From Dioxin, cover this aspect of our dioxin contamination quite adequately. My intention here is to provide you with enough information about dioxin so you know where it comes from so that you can protect yourself from it. In Part II of this book I will focus on ways that you can and your family can do this.

However, there remains a question. The EPA finished its reassessment of dioxin in 1994 and issued a draft report, indicating very serious problems due to dioxin contamination. The conclusions and observations indicate that further dioxin exposure is an imminent threat to human health. On the face of it, it seems obvious that the EPA should have released this report soon after its completion. It was supposed to be released to the public within a year, but it has languished for three years. What is going on here?

The problem facing the EPA is that the Dioxin Reassessment has very broad implications for the industries it regulates, for many that it does not regulate, for public health, and for industrial policy in the U.S. and worldwide. The EPA has limited authority over certain industrial practices. Given the climate in Washington, D.C. today, this agency views itself as a promoter of industrial development within its guidelines, not a formulator of restrictive industrial policy. It is strictly an agency that enforces the laws and environmental regulations. The implications of the dioxin reassessment are in stark contradiction with this view.

The Dioxin Reassessment calls into question a major cornerstone of U.S. industrial development: organochlorine chemical and plastic technology. PVC is the fastest-growing plastic industry worldwide, and more than 90% of the pesticides used today are organochlorines. In addition to all of the PVC and organochlorine chemical feedstock factories here, U.S. chemical companies own many similar facilities all over the world. Tens of thousands of companies are involved in the secondary manufacture and sale of organochlorine products. Most or all of these activities produce dioxin. Yet the clear statement of the Dioxin Reassessment is that the dioxin already in the environment and in peoples' bodies is an imminent threat to people's health. The implication is that any further dioxin exposure is unacceptable. Questioning organochlorine technology places hundreds of billions of dollars of investment in jeopardy. This is clearly beyond the scope of the EPA's jurisdiction.

The Dioxin Reassessment calls into question the safety of the U.S. food supply. The cattle, dairy, and fish production and distribution industries comprise a vast segment of U.S. commerce. The Dioxin Reassessment has severe implications regarding the eating habits of nearly the entirety of the U.S. population. Virtually all meat, fish, and dairy products are contaminated with dangerous amounts of dioxin - for some meat more than 200 times the recommendations in the Reassessment for "acceptable" daily intake. We have already ingested enough dioxin to affect our health. Eliminating further dioxin exposure would necessitate essentially shutting down the U.S. meat, fish, and dairy industry and focusing food production on vegetable-based substitutes. This is clearly outside the realm of a regulatory agency, to put it mildly.

The dioxin contamination of chicken and eggs in the southern U.S. in July 1997 is a case in point. The EPA, FDA, and USDA acted together to ban shipment of chicken and egg products from 350 chicken farms which used dioxin-contaminated feed. The "acceptable" dioxin level chosen by the USDA, which released the actual order, was 1 part per trillion, and that measure was only to be applied for this particular case and not to other foods. That level is 30 times the amount normally found in chicken, and it is the level that the Dioxin Reassessment says has brought the U.S. population to the brink of a public health crisis.

The Dioxin Reassessment calls into question the operation of thousands of incinerators, cement kilns, smelters, and oil refining facilities. Many heavy industrial facilities, especially municipal and medical waste incinerators, produce large amounts of dioxin. Eliminating or greatly reducing further dioxin exposure would necessitate halting incineration nationwide and instituting comprehensive recycling (which accomplishes the same volume reduction as an incinerator - more on this in a later chapter). It would require retrofitting cement kilns, foundries, and smelters with extensive pollution control devices or require facility re-design. It would necessitate changes in oil refining to eliminate organochlorine contamination of diesel fuel. Just the currently operating municipal waste incinerators alone represent an investment of over $10 billion.

 

The Dioxin Reassessment calls into question the entire regulatory system. The EPA has known for over a decade that dioxin has been accumulating in the food chain and in our bodies. Yet the agency seemed powerless to eliminate dioxin even from the largest sources - incinerators - and instead opted for regulations that only somewhat reduced dioxin production. The EPA is now in the predicament of telling us that our bodies and food supply have been poisoned by their inaction.

If the Dioxin Reassessment is ever released to the public, it will likely be embedded in so much regulatory rhetoric and vague and contradictory policy recommendations that its main message will be lost. It will be the job of health, environmental, and food activists and ordinary citizens to bring that message to the public.



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