Why the U.S. Government Won't Protect Us From Toxic Chemicals In Our Food Supply

Three decades later, Americans are still waiting for the EPA to fulfill its promise on examining dioxins in our food supply.

In 1985, “We are the World” won song of the year, The Goonies and Back to the Future lit up the silver screen, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced it would assess the health risks of dioxins. “We are the World” hasn’t hit the airwaves in years, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a child today who is familiar with beloved 1980s flicks. Yet 27 years later, Americans are still waiting for the EPA to fulfill its promise on examining dioxins.

The federal agency has missed [PDF] self-imposed deadline after deadline to release its study of dioxins, toxic chemicals that have been linked to cancer and other health problems. The agency seemed like it was going to come through this year, pinky-swearing that officials would release the long-awaited study by the end of January. Environmentalists, scientists, policy makers, parents, war veterans, and concerned citizens were hopeful that this would finally be the year for some clear, safe guidelines on dioxins.

It’s now February 7th, and there’s still no dioxin assessment. The EPA claims it will release its study “as expeditiously as possible." Folks are beginning to wonder whether we’ll ever see it in this lifetime.

A federal agency dragging its heels is nothing new, but the stakes in this case are especially high. As famed nutritionist Marion Nestle recently summarized, dioxins are quite literally some of the most toxic chemicals on earth. Adequate regulations to protect consumers from their dangers can’t be put in place until the EPA completes its assessment. “EPA must issue a clear scientific report that dioxin is a highly toxic chemical so that state and federal regulators can use that to set health-protective limits on dioxin in our food, water, and environment,” says Jennifer Sass, a senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Current dioxin regulations are based on old and outdated science,” says Mike Schade, a campaign coordinator at the Center for Health and Environmental Justice. “Once EPA’s health report is finalized, agencies can develop new regulations that are responsive to dioxin’s toxicity.”

Meanwhile, the evidence highlighting the chemicals’ impacts continues to pile up. Studies link them to health maladies like endometriosis, fertility problems, birth defects, learning disabilities, immune system deficiencies, and diabetes, just to name a few. The World Health Organization (WHO) considers dioxins to be a human carcinogen. The chemicals served as a toxic contaminant in Agent Orange, a substance used during the Vietnam War as part of the U.S. military’s herbicidal warfare program.

The really scary part is that dioxins are also ubiquitous, particularly in the food supply. The noxious chemicals are an unintended byproduct of industrial processes that burn chlorine, especially chemical factories and garbage and medical waste incinerators. Dioxins get spewed into the air, where they eventually settle into soil, water, and plants. Animals ingest dioxins as they graze, and the chemicals build up in the creatures’ fatty tissues.

That's bad news for animals—and for the people that eat them. People regularly consume a helping of dioxins whenever they eat eggs, fish, meat, and dairy products. According to the EPA, a whopping 96 percent of human exposure to dioxins occurs through the food supply. Studies suggest that virtually every single American contains measurable levels of dioxins the body—including babies, who are oftentimes born pre-polluted.

Given the fact that dioxins are about as common as salt on the American dinner table, you’d think the EPA—whose sole purpose is to protect public health and the environment—would prioritize studying dioxins’ safe limits. Why the years of delay? As Sass explains, “the delay has been political, not scientific.” The EPA faces major pressure from the chemical and food industries not to release its dioxin study—not now, and, if lobbyists get their way, not ever.

Dow Chemical and the American Chemistry Council (ACC), a chemical and plastics industry group, are leading the charge against the EPA’s dioxin study. In December, the ACC requested [PDF] that the EPA delay the release of its long-awaited study.

Major food producers are also pressuring the EPA to turn a blind eye to dioxins, citing concerns that consumers will unnecessarily fear their food. The Food Industry Dioxin Working Group [PDF]—which is made up of industry groups like the International Dairy Foods Association, American Frozen Food Institute, and the National Chicken Council—recently wrote to the White House, urging officials to block the EPA’s study. “Since the agency contends the primary route of human exposure to dioxin is through food, this could not only mislead and frighten consumers about the safety of their diets, but could have a significant negative economic impact on all U.S. food producers,” the group wrote.

“Dow and the chemical industry are following the tobacco industry's strategies to keep information from the public and delay release of the report,” says Schade. “In recent months, the chemical industry and Big Ag have been working behind closed doors to hide and distort the truth about the dangers of dioxin. EPA shouldn’t cave in to chemical industry dollars and interests over public health.”

The EPA’s duty is to protect consumers and the environment, not pander to industry interests. Policy makers can’t adequately regulate dioxins without the EPA’s assessment. We’ve already waited 27 years. Let's not make it 28.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user baltimoredave.

Julian Meehan

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