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October 1997
Volume 15, Number 10

Dioxophobia
by William L. Anderson

This summer, the Environmental Protection Agency announced that it had effectively decontaminated dioxin-laced soil from what was once the community of Times Beach, Missouri. But while the dirt of this site may now be certifiably clean, it will take much more than an incinerator to decontaminate the toxic EPA policies which destroyed the town. The experience of Seveso, Italy, clearly demonstrates that it was not necessary for EPA to destroy Times Beach in order to save it.

In December 1982, the Meramec River inundated nearby Times Beach, a community of about 2,000 people who lived in small homes and trailers 25 miles southwest of St. Louis. The floodwaters not only drove out all of the residents (who two years before had voted to withdraw from the national flood insurance program), but also spread trace amounts of dioxin around the area. In the early 1970s, public works employees had sprayed dioxin-contaminated oil on the town's dirt roads to control dust. The roads were later paved.

After the waters subsided, EPA-hired technicians dressed in moon suits flooded Times Beach, sampling the soil and solemnly declaring that, indeed, the community had been polluted with the deadly chemical. Many residents, most of whom had already lived with the dioxin on their roads for 10 years with no ill-effects, now became hysterical at the news that dioxin--albeit only a tiny amount --was everywhere.

Having created the hysteria, the EPA then stepped in with the solution: EPA Administrator Ann Burford announced a $33 million buyout of Times Beach. Burford, already a target of environmentalists who accused her of favoring polluters over environmental quality, saw her chance to score political points for herself and her boss, Ronald Reagan.

Thus, the town was evacuated, all the houses destroyed, the residents relocated, the place wiped off all maps, and the EPA then set about the very expensive task of incinerating every inch of the contaminated soil. The former community was surrounded by fencing and barbed wire and set off as though the bubonic plague or uncontrolled radiation stalked the grounds.

Fourteen years, hundreds of millions of dollars, and dozens of protests later, the area has been decontaminated and the land will soon be offered for sale. Many former residents, now thoroughly traumatized, believe they have contracted all kinds of sicknesses due to dioxin exposure, while the entrance to the sealed-off area has become a common demonstration site for environmentalists.

Extensive medical testing of the Times Beach residents, however, turned up nothing unusual, according to Dr. Karen Webb, chief medical officer at St. Louis University, during an interview with ABC Television's John Stossel earlier this year. No one, she noted, had been harmed by the dioxin.

This should come as no surprise to the EPA or anyone in public health. In July 1976, a cloud of dioxin from a nearby explosion at the Icmesa Chemical Plant enveloped Seveso, Italy, exposing the townspeople to about 10,000 times the amount that was found in Times Beach. Soon afterward, many animals died, some children developed skin rashes and many of those exposed complained of headaches and diarrhea.

Alarmed government officials set off the town with barbed wire, permitted women to have abortions, and waited for the inevitable epidemic of cancer and birth defects. One detoxification expert quoted in Newsweek declared, "I don't think Seveso will be habitable for at least ten years, perhaps fifteen." The plague, however, never arrived; there were no recorded premature deaths due to dioxin poisoning.

In fact, Seveso is quite a normal place. Italian officials buried the most contaminated items, including animal carcasses and parts of the chemical plant, in a large pit, covered the area with plastic and another foot of dirt, then created a public park over everything. Today, townspeople visit the park every day, children play, and people even eat fruit from trees growing there. Scientists regularly test park mice to see if they show any dioxin contamination; so far, the results have been negative.

How, one might ask, can this be? After all, news accounts about dioxin usually describe it as deadly, or one of the most toxic substances on earth. It turns out that dioxin can be deadly for animals; its link to serious human health problems, however, is far more tenuous. Besides causing skin rashes and other mild reactions, scientists have not been able to determine that dioxin is a serious health threat to people.

That knowledge is reflected in the Italian response to the Seveso incident. The EPA's hysterical, heavy-handed actions at Times Beach, on the other hand, show that the U.S. government once again has engaged in environmental overkill. Even though the Seveso experience has been well-documented, the EPA has chosen to ignore the science.

The EPA has been ignoring good science for years. In 1990, when a $600 million government-funded scientific study of acid rain showed that acidic precipitation was not a serious environmental threat, the EPA ignored the study and attacked some of the leading scientists who were part of it. In recently ordering strict, new air quality guidelines, the EPA once again ignored many of its own scientific experts.

The EPA's overkill in cleaning the soil at Times Beach has eroded its own credibility in another way. Although agency officials now assure potential real estate buyers that the land is safe, people don't believe them. By insisting that trace amounts of dioxin can create health problems which don't exist, the EPA has created a climate of fear which has mushroomed out of control, as ordinary people have come to believe that any exposure to dioxin is unsafe. Now that the EPA has let the anxiety genie out of the bottle, the agency finds it cannot recapture it.

If the EPA cannot find buyers in the United States for Times Beach property, it should place advertisements in Seveso. The people there will know that the land is perfectly safe.

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William Anderson teaches at North Greenville College.

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