Volatile dioxin debate rages as congressman attacks EPA radio silence

By Ben Bouckley

- Last updated on GMT

Volatile dioxin debate rages as congressman attacks EPA radio silence
A senior congressman has hit back at what he claims is industry pressure on the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and also attacked it for two decades of perceived food-dragging over its health reassessment of dioxin.

FoodProductionDaily.com was sent a copy of a letter that Republican Edward Markey wrote to EPA administrator Lisa Jackson pressing for the finalisation and release of the document.

In separate comments for media, Markey said: “Despite worldwide agreement about the toxicity of these chemicals and their persistence in the environment, EPA has yet to release its findings on how dangerous these chemicals are to public health.

“A baby born on the day the EPA completed its first draft health assessment would be 27 years old today. I’d like to see the final EPA analysis before it turns 28.”

Markey was responding to pressure on Barack Obama’s administration – from the likes of the American Frozen Food Institute and International Dairy Foods Association – aimed at easing pending federal guidance that consumers severely limit their daily dioxin intake.

Toxic industrial byproduct

An unwanted byproduct of industrial processes, ‘dioxin’ is the name given to a toxic chemical group that can also enter the food chain (mainly via meat and dairy products, fish and shellfish) via natural processes such as volcanic eruptions and forest fires.

The EPA’s first health assessment of dioxin in 1985, which began its subsequent 20-year review of health impacts, found that the human cancer risk from exposure (of which the agency says over 90% occurs via the diet) was the highest for any manmade chemical.

In the 20 years since, both the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the US National Toxicology Program (NTP) have classified the dioxin as a human carcinogen, and it has been targeted for phase-out via a treaty, the Stockholm Convention, signed by 170 nations.

New EPA guidelines due later this month would set safe exposure limits for US citizens to dioxin, but food firms, farmers, suppliers and restaurants, via the Food Industry Dioxin Working Group, have attacked the agency for questionable science and a lack of consultation.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) states that excess dioxin exposure can cause immune system damage, reproductive, developmental, immunological and hormonal impacts in both humans and animals.

In his letter to Jackson, Markey said that the EPA’s latest Toxic Release Inventory (TRI) analysis indicated that air releases of dioxin rose 10% from 2009-2010, while total disposal or other releases such as landfill rose 18%.

“The increase of dioxin in the environment only further supports the need for immediate steps to be taken to protect the public from this dangerous chemical. Therefore, I strongly urge you to move swiftly in releasing the full scientific assessment of dioxin’s health impacts.”

Congress members' concerns

Dioxin’s capacity to cause such a wide array of ill health effects (outlined above), prompted Markey and 72 Congress members to write to Jackson last April, he said, “expressing deep concern that the EPA’s Dioxin Reassessment has been delayed time and time again for more than 20 years”.

Last August the EPA’s announced its final plan for completing the Dioxin Reassessment relating to the non-cancer health impacts of the reassessment and posting it to the IRIS database by January 2012, and thereafter quickly completing the cancer reanalysis.

But the EPA’s delay in publishing the final reassessment, led Markey to state concerns that the American Chemistry Council (ACC) and other industry players were now pressuring the EPA to “further delay the release of this important document”.

More reviews would 'waste' money

Where the ACC was pressing for further review of the reassessment, Markey said the EPA’s draft dioxin health assessment was revised as recently as 2003, with the Dioxin Reassessment in its final stages for close to nine years.

A National Academy of Sciences (NAS) also issued a detailed report reviewing the EPA’s reassessment in 2006, which the EPA subsequently submitted a formal response to, he said.

Markey wrote that the US public had awaited the completion of dioxin study since 1985.

He wrote:“Additional reviews are not necessary, would be an extreme waste of government resources… and would only serve to further delay the completion of this important public health document.

“I am writing to strongly urge you to reject industry’s call for further delays and meet your schedule of finalising the non-cancer portion of the dioxin reanalysis by the end of this month and to finalize the cancer portion as quickly as possible thereafter, as you have pledged.

The EU is set to roll-out new safety measures in mid-2012, following the December 2010 dioxin scandal where contaminated industrial vegetable oil was given to pigs and chicken in Germany.

Related topics: Food Safety & Quality

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