Veterans, Environmentalists Seek Final EPA Dioxin Cancer Assessment
Environmental and veteran groups are preparing to petition EPA to finalize the agency's long-delayed assessment of the cancer risks of dioxin and are cultivating congressional support for the effort that could lead federal and state regulators to further strengthen cleanup goals for the contaminant at sites around the country.
Sources with the Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA) and the Center for Health, Environment and Justice (CHEJ) say the groups are drafting a petition they will circulate at a series of meetings with veterans and also through the groups' websites calling for EPA to finalize the cancer portion of the reassessment of dioxin's health risks, which the agency drafted in 2003, and pledged last year to finalize "expeditiously."
Dioxin is a category of persistent and accumulative chemicals inadvertently created through industrial processes that involve incineration and also through the burning of trash and forest fires. It was a primary ingredient in the herbicide Agent Orange used during the Vietnam War.
Last year, EPA released the non-cancer portion of the reassessment of dioxin health risks, prompting EPA scientists to calculate a stringent health goal of 50 parts per trillion for use in determining cleanup levels for the common contaminant in soil. Although EPA, at the time, promised the expeditious release of the cancer portion, advocates say they have received no specific indication of when the cancer document will be finalized (Risk Policy Report, April 17, 2012).
In addition to the veterans and environmentalists, Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) is also planning to push EPA to finalize the cancer assessment. Markey, who served in the House of Representatives before being elected to the Senate, has previously written to EPA asking the agency to release the dioxin health risk assessment.
A spokeswoman with Markey's office told Inside EPA that Markey's staff has spoken with environmental groups about renewing pressure on the EPA, focusing on the release of the cancer portion of the reassessment, and also for updated cleanup goals for dioxin contaminated soil at waste sites.
Markey "will continue to urge EPA to take action on this and as well [he] will continue to monitor the work in communities around cleanups," the spokeswoman said.
A source with the Community Advisory Group (CAG), which is assisting EPA with the Dow Chemical Co.'s cleanup of the Saginaw-Tittabawassee River in Michigan, says action on the long-delayed cleanup increased considerably after EPA released its reassessment of dioxin's non-cancer risks last year.
The cleanup there is focusing on containing dioxin-contaminated sediment in some parts of the river and cleaning others. But the source also says cleanup goals for the river remain unclear and that additional information on dioxin's toxicity could help ensure the river is cleaned to the appropriate level. The source says, however, the cleanup is not waiting for updated information on cancer risk, and that it is unclear when that part of the reassessment may be issued.
The extent to which dioxin causes cancer has been a concern since at least 1985 when EPA, in a prior assessment, called dioxin a probable human carcinogen. In the 2003 draft reassessment, EPA strengthened the language, calling dioxin "carcinogenic to humans," though since that time, the agency has issued new guidelines for classifying chemicals' carcinogenicity.
Also, in 2006, the National Academies of Sciences' (NAS) National Research Council found the 2003 draft reassessment underestimates uncertainty concerning the health risks of dioxin and might overstate the chemicals' human cancer risk, according to a 2006 NAS statement. The NAS urged EPA to re-estimate dioxin risks using several different assumptions, before finalizing the reassessment.
EPA says on its website that it will complete the cancer portion of the reanalysis "as expeditiously as possible" and that the document will include a reevaluation of available cancer mode-of-action data and also will have improved cancer dose-response modeling that includes justification for the approaches the agency takes.
EPA's website says almost every living organism has been exposed to dioxin but that by working with states and industry the agency has reduced known and measurable dioxin emissions in recent years. Those efforts have reduced air emissions of dioxin by 90 percent so now most Americans have only low levels of exposure, according to the agency's website.
The VVA source says dioxin exposures through Agent Orange continue to cause adverse health effects in the children and grandchildren of Vietnam War veterans. The CHEJ source says dioxin exposure poses risks for people near contaminated sites and that the chemicals are also present in fatty foods such as hamburger meat and dairy products because airborne dioxin blows to farmland and is consumed by cattle.
The push that VVA and CHEJ are planning comes a year and a half after EPA's pledge to finalize the cancer reassessment expeditiously, and grows out of dozens of meetings the VVA has held and will continue to hold to educate the group's 70,000 members around the country on the health effects of dioxin exposure.
During the meetings, the VVA is also collecting reports from veterans and their children and grandchildren on continued effects of dioxin they say are occurring as a result of exposure to Agent Orange decades ago. The group plans to use those accounts to push for legislation requiring additional research on dioxin's health effects, and as part of the call for EPA to finalize the cancer reassessment.
"We've been talking to various people on the Hill and these meetings are ongoing," the VVA source says, adding that meetings with VVA members have recently been held in Michigan, California, Louisiana and Pennsylvania. The group plans to begin circulating the petition, now in draft form, in the coming weeks, at upcoming meetings and on its website.
The CHEJ source says finalizing the reassessment of dioxin's cancer risk could prompt federal and state regulators to strengthen cleanup goals for contaminated sites, though it is not certain that cleanup goals will change since the results of assessments are not legally enforceable, allowing cleanup decisions to be made on a case-by-case basis.
That cleanups are not required to follow the newest and best science is a key frustration for environmentalists, the source says.