from the pages of May 1996

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Campaigning Against Dioxin

By Brian Tokar

 

In even the briefest of visits, it is clear that Louisiana is a land of extremes. It is a shorter trip than many people realize from the uninhibited multicultural melting pot of downtown New Orleans to the run-down David Duke suburbs of Metairie. From there, all along the Mississippi River some 85 miles upstream to the state capital of Baton Rouge, is a place known to locals as Cancer Alley. At one time the meandering bayous of song and legend were all that interrupted the lush cypress and maple swamps of southern Louisiana. Today, it is a nightmare landscape of oil refineries, chemical plants, and plastics factories, a region with the highest cancer rate in the U.S. It is the main reason why Louisiana leads the nation in emissions of toxic chemicals, toxic industrial accidents, and childhood cancer.

Dioxin is probably the single most toxic chemical consequence of all of Louisiana's -- and the world's -- industrial excess. First discovered as a byproduct of the manufacture of herbicides such as 2,4-D and Agent Orange, dioxins (actually a group of 75 similar compounds) are formed whenever certain common organic chemicals come into contact with chlorine at high temperatures. Waste incinerators are common sources of dioxins, which form when paper, wood, and vinyl-based plastics are burned together. So are pulp and paper mills, cement kilns, and many other industrial facilities. Dioxins have been found to cause cancer in laboratory animals at concentrations of only a few parts per trillion, a fact widely used by activists to press for more stringent regulation of incinerators and other industrial sources.

In 1991, paper manufacturers and other industries pressured the EPA to undertake a systematic reassessment of the toxicity of dioxins, confident that the data could be found to justify a weakening of dioxin-based regulations. But while there may be a paucity of definitive data on human cancers caused by dioxins, a much more urgent series of findings emerged from these studies. Not only can dioxins and a wide variety of related substances cause cancer at extremely minute doses, but they have widespread damaging effects on the reproductive, immune, and nervous systems of people and animals. Dioxins, PCB's, dibenzofurans, and a variety of chemically-related pesticides are now widely recognized as “environmental hormones,” which mimic the actions of vital molecular messengers in all living cells, and send systematically incorrect messages to every cell in every organ system of the body.

At doses already found in the fatty tissues of people all over the world, dioxins and related endocrine disrupters can alter levels of sex hormones, impair immune system function (“chemical AIDS” is a name given to dioxin in some quarters), reduce sperm counts, disturb fetal development -- especially the proper development of sex organs -- and increase the likelihood of learning disabilities. A wide range of behavioral abnormalities, including abnormal sexual behaviors, have been observed in laboratory animals exposed to minuscule doses of dioxin. People who live near pesticide plants and chemical waste sites report locally high rates of birth defects, infant cancers, and children showing signs of puberty before age five. Fish and wildlife in the Great Lakes and other areas impacted by chemical industries demonstrate thyroid dysfunction, decreased fertility, malformed and underdeveloped sex organs, metabolic and behavioral abnormalities and impaired immune systems, among other symptoms. Average sperm counts of men living in the U.S. have fallen 50 percent since 1975, and while the link to dioxin may not yet be certain, no other family of chemicals is nearly as damaging or as pervasive.

People living near incinerators receive the highest doses of dioxin, which persists in fatty tissue for many years, but up to 90 percent of human dioxin exposure comes from food, particularly meat, fish, and dairy products. Native peoples, such as the Inuit of northern Canada who largely survive on subsistence fishing and hunting, have high doses of dioxin in their bodies even though they live hundreds of miles from any identifiable dioxin source, and African Americans have, on average, a third more dioxin in their tissues than others in the U.S. Recent findings suggest that even human breast milk is now a significant source of infant exposure to dioxin.

Unifying Movements

This past March, Baton Rouge was the site of a gathering of nearly 600 anti-toxics and environmental justice activists, who met to plan a coordinated strategy against the growing threat of dioxin to public health and the environment. The Third Citizens Conference on Dioxin and Other Synthetic Hormone Disrupters was a landmark event in the development of a people's movement against this growing toxic onslaught. Since 1991, activist conferences on dioxin have been organized every few years to raise awareness about the nature of the dioxin threat and translate recent scientific findings into more widely accessible terms. This year, people representing a wide variety of regional and national organizations agreed that the time for action had come, that there is now a sufficient base of common knowledge and experience among people across the country to mount a coordinated campaign to eliminate these pervasive chemical poisons once and for all.

Over 550 people attended the three day conference in Baton Rouge, exceeding organizers' expectations nearly three times over. There were people whose communities had survived, and often won, long-term battles against toxic industries, waste dumps, and incinerators, and those from communities desperately seeking evacuation from toxic hazards. Activists from Greenpeace and the Native Forest Network were a visible presence, along with those from the Southern Organizing Committee, which has revived the spirit of early civil rights struggles in communities throughout the South in the name of environmental justice and combating environmental racism.

There were delegations from several native communities, organized under the umbrella of the Minnesota-based Indigenous Environmental Network, as well as representatives from Canada, Mexico, Britain, and Russia. The Citizens Clearinghouse for Hazardous Waste, which was founded by former Love Canal resident Lois Gibbs and now boasts a network of 8,000 local groups nationwide, was a key presence, as were Vietnam veterans' groups, issue-oriented networks such as the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, and movement-oriented scientists such as Peter Montague of the Environmental Research Foundation and Paul and Ellen Connett. The Connetts' Waste Not newsletter has offered an important clearinghouse for anti-incinerator activists for well over a decade.

A significant majority of the participants were women, some 40 percent were from the South, and another 40 percent had experienced a battle with breast cancer, either themselves or in support of a family member. “Everybody is affected by dioxins and endocrine disrupters, no matter what campaign they are working on,” explained Gary Cohen, a member of the conference organizing committee and former director of the Boston-based National Toxics Campaign Fund, “so there is a way of uniting people around the health impacts and the worst corporate actors that gets beyond the old turf issues that used to divide us.” This unity-in-diversity was reflected in an impressive array of voices at the conference.

The conference program also reflected the increased sophistication and political development of anti-toxics activists, the fruits of a movement that has been evolving steadily for over 15 years since Love Canal first became a household name. Along with new scientific findings and international political developments regarding dioxin, panels addressed the primary importance of environmental justice, strategies for allying with chemical workers, the need to challenge corporate power and the development of economic as well as technological alternatives.

At the same time, there was a realistic understanding of the difficulties inherent in this kind of alliance-building work. “You can't just show up in southwest Atlanta and talk to people about dioxin when they're more afraid of getting killed by the police,” explained Vernetta Perkins, one of the many spokespeople for the conference's youth caucus, and a young veteran of the movement against discriminatory school tracking in Selma, Alabama in the early 1990s. Outside the official proceedings, some activists expressed disappointment about the lack of labor representation at this conference. While the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers were a visible presence at previous, more technically-oriented dioxin conferences, they had declined to participate this time in a gathering with an explicitly abolitionist agenda. OCAW's long-standing call for a “workers' superfund” for retraining displaced chemical workers was one proposal that was endorsed to deflate persistent myths of an inherent conflict between job creation and environmental protection. Alternative economic development strategies, such as the Sustainable America efforts that have been springing up in Milwaukee and other cities were also discussed as important models for the future.

Stopping the Poison

Strategy groups in nine different areas will form the basis for a long-term coordinated organizing effort to stop the poisoning of communities and ecosystems. Topics for strategy sessions focused on specific sources of dioxin contamination, as well as particular constituency groups that can work together to further the anti-dioxin campaign. Some of the specific focuses included:

Other groups focused on getting dioxin out of food, coordinating efforts of sympathetic scientists and health workers and developing tools and strategies to help poisoned communities. A group focusing on chlorine use in manufacturing and cleaning addressed workplace hazards and related health concerns, pointing out that chemical workers have become an “indicator species” for the effects of dioxin exposure (Tom Goldtooth of the Indigenous Environmental Network had earlier described native peoples in similar terms). A strategy group on communicating dioxin issues to the public and media discussed ways to address key constituencies such as students, parents, churches, pediatricians, and artists.

The participants' understanding of the nature of corporate misinformation campaigns regarding dioxin and related issues was raised by the presence of John Stauber, co-author of the highly acclaimed Toxic Sludge is Good For You: Lies, Damn Lies and the Public Relations Industry. Stauber described how the multibillion dollar PR industry works in cooperation with an increasingly monopolized mass media to spread myths of corporate benevolence. With poisoned food and water as a leading public concern nationwide, according to even the Republican Party's own polls, corporate myths reinforced by the media play a key role in keeping people passive. This lesson was brought home two days after the conference when the New York Times` Tuesday science section featured a blatant attempt to discredit Dr. Theo Colborn's new book Our Stolen Future, which was praised by many conference participants as an important and highly accessible scientific work on the effects of dioxin and other hormone-disrupting chemicals.

Overall, the conference demonstrated the growing sophistication and deepening political commitment of anti-toxics activists in recent years. In the 1980s, anti-toxics activists were often dismissed as “NIMBY's,” those who simply wanted to keep a particularly distasteful project or land use out of their own backyard. Organizers in middle class and more affluent communities were especially willing to abandon their organizations once a particular battle had been won and an undesirable project had been moved elsewhere. Today's activists are more often facing the long-term consequences of toxic industries in their communities.

“There's more than just one problem in these communities,” explained Lois Gibbs, who led the campaign for evacuation of residents from Love Canal in the early 1980s, directs the Citizen's Clearinghouse, and is now the principal author of the encyclopedic activists' guide Dying from Dioxin (South End Press). “Once they get involved, they realize everything is connected and can see the bigger picture that includes their health, their schools, the economy, and everything else.” “We're trying to create a world view in which activists can wage long-term campaigns which embody environmental justice, economic justice, a clear analysis of corporate power and an understanding of the international dimensions of this issue as well,” added Gary Cohen. “We are seeing the development of a politicized, educated mass movement.”

The participants' commitment to integrating environmental and social justice was put to the test on the last day of the conference. A group of Cherokee activists from North Carolina had gone out for an early breakfast at a Shoney's restaurant in a nearby mall. Not only were they refused service, but they were charged for food they never had the opportunity to eat. As the conference's closing session was underway, dozens of people teemed out of the conference halls for a spirited, spontaneous mile-long march to the offending Shoney's restaurant. When the Cherokee delegation received an apology and a full refund from Shoney's management, in full view of local TV cameras, it was an important lesson to everyone present in the possibilities and the joys of solidarity. Defeating the chemical industry will be a much longer battle, but everyone left Baton Rouge with a feeling that victory may be in sight.

Brian Tokar is the author of The Green Alternative and Renewing the Environmental Revolution.