January/February 2005                                                                                        VOLUME 121, NO. 1

mulling it over...

Dioxin: A Piece of Cake

by Ken Patrick >> email: kpatrick@paperage.com

Were we bamboozled by environmentalists? Where did the EPA get the idea that dioxin is one of the most toxic, carcinogenic chemicals known to science? During the 1980s, leading up to final promulgation of the U.S. EPA's Cluster Rule in late 1997, we heard horror stories about what dioxin could do to zoological life forms on this planet. We were told there were no safe exposure levels of dioxin in the environment—period!

If that's so, how could Viktor Yushchenko, this past fall a Ukrainian presidential candidate (now winner of the December 26 “runoff” election), ingest his body weight in dioxin and come away with just a bad case of zits? Well, OK, maybe he didn't eat his body weight, but recent blood tests report dioxin levels many thousands of times more than that normally found in a person's blood. Someone clearly had it in for Viktor.

The concentration in Yushchenko's body, in fact, was reported to be about 100,000 units of dioxin per gram of blood fat, which was the second highest level ever recorded in a human. I've been unable to determine specifically how much a “unit” of dioxin is, but 100,000 has to be a lot no matter how you look at it. The “normal” level for humans is reportedly 15 or so units per gram of blood fat.

The worst case of dioxin poisoning on record was a woman in Vienna who, after being intentionally poisoned in the mid-1990s, was found to have 140,000 units per gram of blood fat. She too survived the poisoning with no apparent, long-lasting problems. So, there you go again.

All in the Family. Yes, I know there are various kinds of dioxins and that some are more toxically viscous than others. The most toxic compound is reported to be 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin, or TCDD. The toxicity of other dioxins and chemicals such as PCBs that act like dioxin are said to be measured in relation to TCDD.

Maybe Yushchenko's political enemies didn't have access to the hard stuff, but all of the facts aren't in yet. The last I heard, they had narrowed the search from 400 possible dioxins to just a handful. And I believe TCDD was still in the hunt. Maybe Yushchenko's food was being laced with high octane TCDD or perhaps just a milder TCDD/x version of it.

But in the 1980s, no one was making distinctions. In those days, “dioxin” was pronounced with a hissing “x”—dioxsssssiiin. It didn't matter what TCDD brother, cousin, or chlorinated-organic nephew might be escaping with bleach plant decker effluent, if a mill was using elemental chlorine, it was making dioxssssiiin, detect or non-detect.

In the 1980s, dioxssssiiin was lurking everywhere—in Agent Orange, in Love Canal in Niagara Falls, N.Y., Times Beach, Mo., and Seveso, Italy. Traces were found downstream of most bleached pulp and paper mills in the U.S. (using brand new detection technology). It was said to be bioaccumulating in the environment and climbing up the food chain into meat and dairy products, e.g., beef, milk, butter, chicken, pork, fish and eggs-roughly in that order.

Then as now, dioxin was considered to be an extremely potent cancer causing agent. Subsequent studies and reports progressively confirmed that view. According to the Dioxin Homepage, in 1997 the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) (www-cie.iarc.fr)—part of the World Health Organization—officially designated TCDD a Class 1 human carcinogen. In 2001, the U.S. National Toxicology Program (ntp-server.niehs.nih.gov) upgraded the toxin from “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen” to “known to be a human carcinogen.” In 2003, an EPA re-analysis of the cancer risk from dioxin reaffirmed that there is no known “safe dose” (www.ejnet.org/dioxin/nosafedose.html) or “threshold” below which dioxin will not cause cancer.

Is that So? Hmmmm. But Viktor Yushchenko must have eaten several shovels full of dioxin, and the Viennese woman too. Doctors say Yushchenko should fully recover with no impairment or threat to life. His rough acne-like rash may persist for several years, but even this should eventually clear up…relatively at least.

Yushchenko is only 50. He should live well long enough to see any cancerous effects of the toxin. If dioxin is as venomous and truly as carcinogenic as environmental toxicologists say, shouldn't his doctors be a little more concerned and/or a little less optimistic? Shouldn't they, in fact, be predicting imminent death by cancer of every cell in his body?

Hopefully, time will not prove the medical experts wrong in Yushchenko's case, or that of the woman in Vienna. The Ukraine certainly needs and deserves a long-term president such as Yushchenko seemingly will make.

In the meantime, the global pulp and paper industry spent billions junking chlorine, all in just a few short years after dioxin traces were first detected below bleached mill effluent discharges. Not liked still by most environmentalists, the industry's rapid switch to chlorine dioxide has taken dioxin emissions from practically all mills to non-detect levels.

The problem, though, is that the industry suffered through some fairly significant capital spending to convert over to 100% ClO2-based (ECF) bleaching, at a time when things were beginning to spiral financially down and Y2K worries were hanging darkly on the industry's horizon. At a time when they could least afford to, paper companies around the world coughed up many hundreds of millions of dollars to buy and install new chlorine dioxide generators and to shutdown and rebuild elemental chlorine bleach lines.

In the process, some pretty good pulp mills went down permanently and many hundreds of mill workers lost their jobs, ushering in the first of several waves of mill closures and employee cutbacks that only in the past six months have finally run their course. It's good that the paper industry no longer produces dioxssssiiin, but some retrospective anger could be in order if the deadly toxin continues to fizzle and eventually proves to be no more harmful than bubble gum.

Addendum. Of note, Viktor Yushchenko fell ill after having dinner September 5 with the Ukrainian Security Service chief and his deputy, who strangely were not afflicted. He reported a headache three hours after the dinner, and the next day was not feeling very well. Things went down hill from there, getting much worse before finally getting better.

As my friend, associate, and long-time fellow journalist Jack O'Brien and I have, on occasion, discovered during our many years of dedicated service to the paper industry, other unpleasant conditions can be accompanied by similar symptoms—too many double martinis at cocktail receptions being one

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