The Dioxin Diet

Jean-Claude Garrat, the chef-owner of BeDuCi, a tony Washington, D.C. restaurant frequented by high-flying lobbyists, was surprised one day in June when a group of demonstrators dressed as chefs showed up outside his door to protest the restaurant's participation in a lawsuit filed against the U.S. National Toxicology Program (NTP), a division of the Department of Health and Human Services which issues a list of cancer-causing substances every two years.

After activists from the Falls Church, Virginia-based Center for Health, Environment and Justice started their protest, Garrat came outside to assure them that, although his restaurant was named as a plaintiff, he knew nothing about the lawsuit, which seeks to block NTP from listing dioxin as a "known human carcinogen" in its Ninth Report on Carcinogens.

The lawsuit alleges that the restaurant and a California-based polyvinyl chloride (PVC)-maker would be damaged by a "food scare" created by NTP, and that NTP disregarded its own chemical classification criteria, improperly relying on animal and other data.

NTP officials respond that the agency could not possibly be blamed for catalyzing a "food scare" since dioxin is already widely considered to be a human carcinogen by government agencies that have studied the available scientific literature.

The lawsuit, it turns out, was filed by Jim Tozzi, president of Multinational Business Services, a Washington, D.C.-based consulting firm with offices around the corner from BeDuCi.

Tozzi's core business involves regulatory lobbying for multinational corporate clients, including Burson-Marsteller (a public relations giant which in turn flaks for dioxin-emitting chemical manufacturers including Dow Chemical) and the American Forest & Paper Association, the paper industry trade association.

Tozzi says he added BeDuCi because he is an investor in the restaurant, but Garrat denies this. "No, no. He spends enough money here to be an investor. It sounds good in Washington to say that." Tozzi later dropped BeDuCi from the suit.

NTP officials say that while the Report on Carcinogens is not itself a regulatory document, other government agencies use it to guide their own regulatory decisions. Hence Tozzi's concern.

"The classification is important because there are a lot of state and local governments that will use it to ban your product," Tozzi says, pointing out that cities in California such as Berkeley and San Francisco have already cited the Report on Carcinogens in resolutions restricting the use of PVC, a chlorine-based plastic that emits dioxins when burned.

Environmentalists point out that NTP's position is consistent with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA's) dioxin reassessment, the most in-depth study of any chemical in history.

While there is no direct relationship between the reassessment and the Report on Carcinogens, both agencies have looked at the available scientific literature and reached the same conclusion about dioxin's ability to cause cancer.

U.S. EPA spokesperson William Farland says that while dioxin levels in the environment and in human diet have been steadily declining, the risk of cancer for people with a high-fat diet and genetic predisposition could still be as high as one in 1000 or even one in 100.

"It's a difficult risk communication issue," Farland says, pointing out that subtler, non-lethal effects such as impacts on fetal development, the immune system and the incidence of diabetes may be even more important for the general population.

EPA's conclusions are apparently not convincing enough to Tozzi. "EPA has a problem," he says. "We regulate chemicals at one in a million. So these numbers mean that the food supply is threatened. ... On the one hand they're saying dioxin is a known human carcinogen. On the other they're saying that 90 percent of it comes through the food chain. But they're saying the food supply is not unsafe. There's no way out of that box."

Farland says the EPA is looking for ways not only to reduce dioxin emissions into the environment, but also to interdict their entry into the food supply so that the levels in food might be lowered.

 Both Tozzi and EPA's environmentalist critics agree that EPA can't or won't regulate products such as PVC, which is why environmentalists are looking elsewhere for regulatory action.

"The EPA prefers to look largely at the endpoints -- what some call 'blame the victim,'" says Rick Hind, toxics campaigner at Greenpeace, which has long pointed to major uses of chlorine such as PVC as the root source of dioxin. "Don't burn trash in your backyard; eat a low-fat diet, etc. But it's not enough: they have to go to the source of the dioxin."

But Kip Howlett, executive director at the Chlorine Chemistry Council (CCC), an industry trade association, says that EPA has told CCC it would not impose dioxin emission regulations on the chlorine industry.

"I have no idea where that came from," says the EPA's Farland. "I think we've been trying to understand the processes that give rise to dioxin in the environment. Whether or not the use, for instance, of chlorine in building materials is significant is something we'll have to look into, but we don't have a position on that.

"When the final reassessment comes out, there will be a strategy to look at dioxins across all of EPA's programs," Farland says. "Clearly the uncontrolled burning issue is one that we need to think about."

-- Charlie Cray