New Assessment of Dioxin Cancer Risk Needed
WASHINGTON The cancer risk from the chemical dioxin -- present in some U.S. soil, food supplies and most Americans' bodies -- needs to be reassessed by the Environmental Protection Agency before it sets a new standard for cleanup, a U.S. scientific panel reported Tuesday.
Experts assembled by the National Academies' National Research Council confirmed many of the findings of a 2003 EPA report on dioxin, which found dioxin causes cancer and reproductive and immune-system disorders in humans.
However, the experts said EPA may have overstated cancer risk at extremely low doses of dioxin, and researchers could consider looking at existing data in new ways to check their findings.
Even though the EPA draft report was made public three years ago, its findings were not reflected in policy.
The National Academies panel said at a briefing that the EPA's risk assessment should be completed within a year or so, with no further data-gathering required.
The 2003 report's assessment indicated that even slight exposure to dioxin could constitute a health risk, and safe levels of the chemical could be as much as 10 times lower than EPA's previous assessment, made in 1985.
"We're clearing the way for EPA to release this report," said panel chairman David Eaton, a professor at the University of Washington, Seattle. "Our recommendation is not to go back and start over."
Dioxin and related chemicals have raised concern since the 1970s, when they were found in the herbicide Agent Orange, used by U.S. forces in the Vietnam War. These chemicals also are byproducts of various industries, including paper and pulp production, incinerators and businesses that use chlorine.
Dioxin and dioxin-like compounds stay in the environment, allowing them to build up in the food chain. Most Americans ingest dioxin when they eat fatty foods including beef, pork, fish and dairy products, and others are exposed to the chemical on the job or by accident, the National Academies panel noted.
The Boston-based Center for Health, Environment and Justice hailed the National Academies report in a statement and accused industries that use chlorine of stalling enforcement of higher cleanup standards.
"The first health assessment of dioxin was in 1985," the center's executive director, Lois Gibbs, said in the statement. "Over the past 21 years, chlorine-based industries have demanded reviews, reassessments and analysis. ... Enough is enough. Let's get on with establishing health protective regulations."