thumbnail of The MacNeil/Lehrer Report; Dioxin
Hide -
ROBERT MacNEIL [voice-over]: As the dioxin scare disrupts life in another community, how many sites are still to be found, and what is the health risk?
MacNEIL: Good evening. Last week the toxic chemical dioxin was found at a former chemical plant site in Newark, New Jersey. The Governor immediately offered to provide families living nearby with temporary housing for safety. A nearby fish and produce market were closed pending tests on whether the contamination had spread beyond the plant site. A factory on that site produced the dioxin-related defoliant Agent Orange during the Vietnam War. Officials have also begun testing a second New Jersey site believed contaminated by dioxin. The New Jersey discoveries came as final agreement was being signed for the federal government to buy out the residents of Times Beach, Missouri, a St. Louis suburb where dioxin was found last year. In the last few years dioxin has emerged as one of the most toxic and most controversial chemicals produced by American industry. Direct exposure to it can produce a variety of skin disorders. It has proved to be fatal in beef cattle and other animal life. Thousands of Vietnam veterans are suing the government, claiming a wide variety of serious illnesses stemming from their contact with Agent Orange. The wider public health issue is how many dioxin sites remain undiscovered across the United States, and do small traces of the chemical pose a health risk to people exposed? And those are the questions we raise tonight.Jim?
JIM LEHRER: Robin, it's important to understand a few basics about dioxin itself. Number one, it's not just one chemical; it's a shorthand name for a family of some 75 different chemical compounds, each with very long and complicated names. The most toxic of them, for instance, being -- TCDD, thankfully, for short. Seldom, if ever, has any chemical manufacturer set out to intentionally make dioxin. It's what's called an unwanted byproduct of processes used in making compounds that have been wanted, such as those in herbicides and in various antibacteria chemicals like hexachlorophine. The public health problem or potential problem comes via one of several avenues -- through the improper or uninformed disposal of the unwanted dioxin wastes, as in the case of Times Beach. There, a waste hauler picked up dioxin-filled waste from a chemical plant, combined it with oil, and then sprayed it on the dusty roads of Times Beach and other Missouri towns. The newer case raises the question of contamination of the ground and building around where dioxin was once made. The Agent Orange situation involves a herbicide which was still contaminated with dioxin when it was sprayed in Vietnam. The question of how much dioxin there is in, under and around us now as a result of these and other allegedly improper uses is one of the most heated parts of the current dioxin debate. Robin?
MacNEIL: One man who has attempted to track the extent of dioxin as well as other chemical contamination is Lewis Regenstein, a writer and environmentalist. He's the vice president of the Fund for Animals and auther of the book America the Poisoned published last year. Mr. Regenstein, how many more sites of dioxin contamination do you believe remain to be found?
LEWIS REGENSTEIN: Well, Robin, no one really knows, but I think the more we look the more we're going to find. There are millions upon millions of gallons of products that have contained dioxin that have been produced in this country in the last few years and decades that have been dumped all over the country, usually improperly. They have been dumped in rivers, streams, lakes, and in toxic waste dumps -- tens of thousands of which are located all over America. So the more we look I think the more we're going to find, and I think we're going to learn that virtually the entire American population is potentially at risk of being exposed to dioxin, which is the most toxic chemical known.
MacNEIL: Is dioxin still being produced? In other words, are new sites being created?
Mr. REGENSTEIN: Well, the problem is -- and this is a major problem and in my opinion a scandal -- the Environmental Protection Agency is still allowing millions of pounds of herbicides that contain dioxin to be sprayed throughout the United States. In fact, the same two chemicals that composed Agent Orange -- 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T -- are being sprayed all over America, even though in 1979 EPA put a partial ban on 2,4,5-T -- suspended some uses of it on the grounds that it was killing unborn children in areas where it was being sprayed. But it's still being sprayed on rice crops, on rangeland where cattle graze. It's being sprayed in industrial areas. And we're really sowing the seeds for a future health disaster.
MacNEIL: The New Jersey sites we mentioned at the beginning of the program were on an EPA list in 1980. What do you think of the way the EPA has handled the situation?
Mr. REGENSTEIN: Well, the EPA has been very slow and recalcitrant as far as acting to clean up toxic waste dumps. And not just in New Jersey, but throughout the country. Only a handful have really been effectively addressed. And in the meantime --
MacNEIL: What about trying to find out where there are dioxin sites?
Mr. REGENSTEIN: Well, there are -- the EPA has really not been doing the job it should have been doing in this area and many other areas. And keep in mind, every year in America about a ton of toxic waste is produced for every man, woman and child in this country, and only about 10% of these deadly wastes are properly disposed of. So we're getting an enormous amount of deadly chemical waste being improperly disposed of -- dumped in areas where it gets into the environment, into the food chain and eventually into our own bodies.
MacNEIL: What do you think of what was done at -- do you think the right thing was done at Times Beach? Do you think that was the correct way of dealing with that situation?
Mr. REGENSTEIN: Well, I'll say this. It doesn't make any sense to buy up Times Beach, Missouri, to spend tens of millions of dollars of the taxpayers' money --
MacNEIL: Thirty-three million.
Mr. REGENSTEIN: Thirty-three million so far to buy out Times Beach, Missouri and to evacuate it because it contains levels of one part per billion in some areas and much higher in other areas, while at the same time you allow these herbicides like 2,4,5-T and Silvex to be sprayed all over the country that contain much higher levels of dioxin.
MacNEIL: Put briefly, what do you think the EPA should be doing about dioxin right now?
Mr. REGENSTEIN: Well, the most sensible thing and the easiest thing it could do immediately would be to ban chemicals that are being sprayed that we know contain dioxin, like 2,4,5-T and Silvex, both of which were restricted on an emergency basis in 1979, but which are still widely used.
MacNEIL: What about finding out about dioxin sites?
Mr. REGENSTEIN: Well, the more we look the more we're going to find, the more problems it's going to create for local and federal governments, the more money that's going to have to be spent. So you have a tremendous disincentive to look for trouble, but I think if we're going to protect the public health and future generations of Americans we've got to make a major effort to locate dioxin contaminated sites throughout the country. And so far this has not been done.
MacNEIL: Mr. Regenstein, thank you. Jim?
LEHRER: At the federal level it is the job of the Environmental Protection Agency to deal with the dioxin problem. As of last week that means it's the specific job of Lee Thomas, who has been nominated assistant administrator of EPA for solid waste and emergency response. That's the position once held by Rita Lavelle, who was fired by President Reagen. Mr. Thomas joined EPA this year and held various acting management positions during the tumultuous months following the Lavelle firing and other EPA events. Mr. Thomas came from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, where he had headed the government task force which dealt with the Times Beach episode. Mr. Regenstein says that the entire population of this country is at risk as a result of dioxin. Is he wrong?
LEE THOMAS: I really don't have any particular information to debate one way or the other Mr. Regenstein as far as that statement is concerned. I think what we're trying to do as far as the EPA is concerned is basically to assess just exactly what the problem is, and then take action to deal with that problem while at the same time we're trying to deal through preventive measures with new regulations to ensure that in fact we don't create new problems in the future.
LEHRER: All right, let's take the two things he mentioned. First of all, finding the waste sites out there which now contain toxic waste and dioxin in that. What is EPA doing on that?
Mr. THOMAS: Well, under the Superfund authority, as you probably know, we are in the process of dealing with major toxic waste sites throughout this country, as well as identifying additional toxic waste sites for future action. At this point in time, for instance, we have over 400 priority waste sites that we're trying to deal with. We've got action underway at over 270 of those sites; we're in the process of identifying what action should be taken at the remaining sites. Additionally we've taken action in over 130 sites in addition to that that aren't on that priority list. So we're in the process of dealing with a broad range of toxic waste, dioxin being one of those wastes.
LEHRER: Dioxin doesn't have any special priority at EPA right now?
Mr. THOMAS: Well, at this point in time I would say yes, dioxin does have a particular priority. It has a priority as far as our regulatory program is concerned, and for instance, under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, which is basically our hazardous waste regulatory authority, we have recently listed a whole broader range of dioxin for regulation under our acutely hazardous waste provisions of that act.
LEHRER: Would that involve the two herbicides that Mr. Regenstein just mentioned that EPA now approves?
Mr. THOMAS: As Mr. Regenstein mentioned, in 1975 there was a suspension made of the use of those herbicides, a partial suspension. At present the agency does have under administrative litigation the review of the remaining use of those herbicides, and that's an ongoing review right now.
LEHRER: Well, what does that mean? I mean, it's likely that they might be banned altogether like he wants?
Mr. THOMAS: It means that that's under consideration.
LEHRER: I see. So in terms of how much dioxin might be out there in various dumps or having been sprayed years ago, as was the case at Times Beach, or left over from plants, as in Newark, you just don't know right now, right?
Mr. THOMAS: Right now we don't, and I don't think anybody does. We're in the process of trying to identify where the major problems are, both with dioxin and other wastes. As far as dioxin is concerned, we for instance are in the process in six different states of looking at potential sites, some of which we've already got confirmed dioxin, such as in New Jersey. We're trying to deal with -- obviously, you're aware of the Missouri situation. And we will be in the process of reviewing additional sites.
LEHRER: Well, let's talk about the Newark thing for a moment. That's the newest one that's hit the front pages. Where does that stand now in terms of what the EPA's going to do about it?
Mr. THOMAS: Well, we've been working closely with the state through our New York regional office and our headquarters here in Washington in close coordination with the Center for Disease Control under the Department of Health and Human Services to try and, one, assess the extent of the problem there in Newark and to do it quickly with a limited sampling approach. In other words, a limited sampling both on site and off site. We will go back in immediately and do a much broader sampling process to understand the full extent of the problem, both on site and off site. But the immediate results will determine whether we've got an immediate health problem, particularly off site. Those results are due in, as a matter of fact, today. Our regional office -- I talked with whem earlier -- was in the process of getting final results from our laboratory and in the process of coordinating with the state officials on those results.
LEHRER: What's it look like, those early results?
Mr. THOMAS: I don't have those early results. In other words, they're in the process of filing those at this minute, as a matter of fact.
LEHRER: And nobody has called you and said, "Hey, Mr. Thomas, we've got a serious problem up here in Newark?" I mean, there's not even that much knowledge at this point?
Mr. THOMAS: They've called me and told me basically that they're in the process of finalizing the information, trying to verify and ensure that we have proper quality control on the samples that came in today, and they hope to get that completed tonight with the state of New Jersey, with our labs.
LEHRER: Thank you. Robin?
MacNEIL: Now we move on to the question of what dioxin actually does to people.The Dow Chemical Company, one of the major producers of dioxin as a chemical byproduct, recently announced a major study to determine the extent of the problem. Dr. James Saunders is director of biomedical research at Dow. He joins us tonight from public station KQED, San Francisco. Dr. Saunders, the president of your company said recently, "There is absolutely no evidence of dioxin doing any damage to humans excecpt for sometime called chloracne. It's a rash." How do you assess that?
Dr. JAMES SAUNDERS: Well, Robin, I look at Mr. Oreffice's statement in the light of Dow's experience in 1964 when 61 Dow employees were exposed to a waste stream from a trichlorophenol process, and 49 of those people did have chloracne, and some of those people reported malaise and fatigability. Those people were studied very, very carefully. Detailed liver function studies, kidney function studies, and in some cases, actually liver biopses. No other health effects were found. No objective health effects were found in those people other than chloracne.
MacNEIL: I see. Does Dow know for sure that dioxin is not more deeply damaging to humans, as some people suspect, or isn't it sure? Aren't you sure yet?
Dr. SAUNDERS: Well, Robin, I think we have a great deal of data from around the world. We have an enormous toxicology literature. We also have the experience of some 800 individuals who have been exposed in 24 industrial accidents over the last 30 years. And that, coupled with the experience in Seveso, I think gives toxicologists who have reviewed that literature considerable assurance that man is not as sensitive as some of the animals which have been studied in the laboratory. And in fact that has been substantially the conclusion of an Italian review board, one in the United Kingdom, one in New Zealand, and our own American Medical Association and the National Academy of Sciences.
MacNEIL: Last week a congressman disclosed -- a South Dakota congressman disclosed a British study that was done in 1978 saying that dioxin was linked to a breakdown in the human body's immune system. Dow, as I understand it, provided that study to the EPA in 1980. What is your position on it now?
Dr. SAUNDERS: As we look -- as I look at that study, it's very difficult for me to evaluate what it means, but I would like to point out that Dr. Ward, who ran the study, was contacted by the Associated Press and indicated that Mr. Daschle had vastly overdrawn his study.
MacNEIL: Mr. Daschle was the congressman who released it?
Dr. SAUNDERS: Yes, sir.
MacNEIL: And Dr. Ward said what?
Dr. SAUNDERS: Dr. Ward said that in his opinion perhaps people might be more susceptible to colds and flu and things like that. I might also point out that that question has been investigated in the Seveso experience --
MacNEIL: What is the Seveso experience? You referred to that earlier.
Dr. SAUNDERS: I beg your pardon. Of course I'm referring to the ICMESA chemcal explosion on July 10th, 1976, which resulted in the exposure of as many as 6,000 people to rather high concentrations of dioxin. In fact, some reports range up to parts per million -- thousands or hundreds of thousands of times the level we're talking about today.
MacNEIL: Yeah. You mentioned the animals. Tests have shown that dioxin can produce death and birth defects and cancer in some animals. Does that not raise the suspicion that it could, over a prolonged period, do the same to human beings?
Dr. SAUNDERS: Well, it certainly would raise the suspicion if we didn't have the extensive human experience that we have, and I think many, many toxicologists in the academic world as well as in industry and government would agree that there is considerable data that gives us assurance that things are not as bad as might be predicted, given the exposures that we've seen -- even the heavy ones in the industrial accidents.
MacNEIL: How does Dow tonight assess the public health risk to residents of places like Times Beach and Newark, New Jersey?
Dr. SAUNDERS: Well, it's very difficult at a distance to evaluate that. Let me give my sense of what those numbers might mean. It really depends on who one's trying to protect. If one is trying to protect children who might be eating soil, then the level of one to 10 parts per billion in soil is a level of some concern, but a level which would not result in any ill health effects. For the general population, including the unborn, including the pregnant, including the aged and the infirm, I think a level below 100 parts per billion would not pose a risk to people. And of course occupational settings, one might tolerate even higher exposures insomuch as people are protected by industrial hygiene practices.
MacNEIL: Thank you. Jim?
LEHRER: There is another side to the argument over risks dioxin poses to health, and we hear it now from Dr. Ellen Silbergeld, a toxicologist for the Environmental Defense Fund here in Washington. You heard what Dr. Saunders said, that there is no study which has shown any serious side effects as a result of exposure to dioxin. Is he right or wrong?
Dr. ELLEN SILBERGELD: Well, if you look at the same literature on dioxin I think he's wrong. I think what we're seeing is an experience that we've unfortunately lived through with other kinds of chemicals, notably asbestos, where the full story of the kinds of health effects which might be associated with exposure -- specifically in the industrial accidents he's talking about and in Seveso -- that full story's not yet in. We're going to have to wait 20, possibly even 30 years, as we did with asbestos, until we can fully appreciate the entire spectrum of effects, notably cancer, which might occur in people.
LEHRER: You say might occur. What makes you believe that it might occur? What studies or whatever causes you to believe that dioxin could lead to cancer?
Dr. SILBERGELD: Two types of studies. First off, there are now beginning to appear reports of people exposed in some of these accidents developing increased incidents of soft tissue sarcomas, which is a relatively rare type of cancer. Again, the parallel to asbestos and the mesothelioma story. The second part which concerns me very greatly as a toxicologist is that we do know a great deal about how dioxin affects cells.This has been studied extensively, of course, in animals. But we know that same cellular machinery exists in human cells, and we know that when human cells in tissue culture are exposed to very, very low levels of dioxin the same set of biochemical and physiologic events which culminate in tumors in animals are also initiated in human cells. That, I think, should give everyone very great concern about the translation of the animal data to human health potential.
LEHRER: In other words, you would say to Dr. Saunders, yes, those animal studies may show this but the industrial accidents don't confirm that, all you're saying is, it's too early. Is that it?
Dr. SILBERGELD: For the major bottom line effect that we're worried about with dioxin, which is cancer, it's too early. For some of the acute effects it may well be that there's a species sensitivity and we're fortunately at the protected end, but I'd also point out, as was mentioned today in the press, that some of the workers exposed in New Jersey are reported by a physician who examined them back at the time when the factory was active to have had liver damage, to have shown the symptoms that Dr. Saunders and Dow Chemical claim have not occurred.
LEHRER: What is your position on what the health hazard is in a way that we can understand, in terms of exposure. Relate it to Newark, relate it to Times Beach -- anyway you would like so we can understand it what you think the risk is.
Dr. SILBERGELD: I'd quote from the EPA and from a number of other sources, the Canadian government, many publications of NCI, that dioxin is one of the most potent chemical carcinogens yet studied.
LEHRER: And what about the -- and your advice based on that would be what in terms of how to handle these situations that we're talking about tonight?
Dr. SILBERGELD: The way the EPA and the public health service reacted to the sites in Missouri early this year and the way in which the EPA and the state authority is responding in New Jersey is entirely appropriate. I think what the public health service has said many times has to be remembered. As far as we know, for chemicals like dioxin, there's no safe level. There are varying degrees of exposure and varying measures of protection we can take. I just heard today, for example, from Major Young of the United States Veterans Administration, who has been studying this problem in connection with Agent Orange, that assays they've been doing on people in the United States who haven't been exposed to dioxin as far as anyone knows, either from being in Vietnam or working in chemical plants, that all these people studied so far show measurable levels of dioxin in body fat. So we really are dealing, as Mr. Regenstein said, with a pervasive chemical pollution of our environment and our bodies.
LEHRER: Thank you. Robin?
MacNEIL: Dr. Saunders, how do you reply to Dr. Silbergeld that human cells, when studied, betray the same signs when exposed to dioxin that animal cells do, that lead to more dire consequences in animals, and that there are beginning to be reports of tissue cancers connected with dioxin exposure.
Dr. SAUNDERS: Well, I would of course agree in that the animal data generlly give us a very good way of predicting what might happen in man at high doses, and there is no question -- I don't want to be misunderstood to say that this is not a highly toxic material. And I don't want to be misunderstood to say that it has not produced other short-term health effects, including liver enlargement, peripheral neuropathy and a variety of other --
MacNEIL: What is that, peripheral neuropathy?
Dr. SAUNDERS: I'm sorry. Peripheral nerve disorder, in which sensation might be abnormal or people might have weakness of the extremities or something like that. So it is clear that some of these effects can be produced in men and have been seen in men. What I referred to earlier was Dow's experience in 1964. I would like to point out that all of these things which to date have been seen in man have proven to be reversible. And I would like to go on to the issue of cancer, which of course is a legitimate concern for all of us. What one sees in laboratory animals who are very, very sick after being dosed a lifetime with dioxin is the development of liver cancer and other kinds of cancer which are not related to the soft-tissue sarcomas that some people have suggested might be related to dioxin exposure, and which many nore studies have failed to show related.
MacNEIL: How do you answer that, Dr. Silbergeld, that all the conditions that have been connected with dioxin so far are reversible?
Dr. SILBERGELD: Clearly the cancers are not reversible. We wish they were. I think with respect to the other comments Dr. Saunders makes, as he well knows, it was Dow Chemical that in one of the most elegant and complete animal feeding studies showed that in animals that are not toxic, in animals that are not sick and dying, there was a measurable and significant increase in cancer at very, very low doses. That's the Kociba study from Dow Chemical. In addition, the failure to find exactly the same type of organ-specific cancer in different species has never, in the minds of the International Agency for Research on Cancer, NCI, or any other group, been seen as a barrier for considering that a chemical is indeed carcinogenic in different species.
MacNEIL: Mr. Regenstein, having listened -- and I know you're not a doctor -- but having listened to this kind of disagreement among two distinguished people who are, and given the potential of billions of dollars of cost to the public or industry that would be involved in a really massive assault on this, how do you assess the public risk versus the cost of doing something about it?
Mr. REGENSTEIN: Well, of course we're using the entire American population as guinea pigs for the chemical industry, for Dow Chemical Company to see what the ultimate effects will be of dioxin on the population. There is no question whatsoever that dioxin has been killing people for many, many years. The Environmental Protection Agency in 1979 --
MacNEIL: Well, isn't there a serious question that it's been killing people for many years? You --
Mr. REGENSTEIN: I don't think so. EPA said in 1979, when it restricted 2,4,5-T, it was doing so in part because it was killing unborn children in areas where it was being sprayed. In Ashford, Washington, [sic] where some of the Agent Orange herbicides were being sprayed, 10 out of 12 pregnant women had miscarriages. One of the two live-born babies died after a few weeks. In the Swan Valley area of Montana, nine out of 10 pregnant women suffered miscarriages when herbicides were being sprayed.
MacNEIL: Mr. Thomas -- excuse me interrupting. Mr. Thomas, just a few moments here. Does the EPA believe that dioxin is as lethal, currently lethal as Mr. Regenstein says, and is it acting -- continuing to act on that assumption?
Mr. THOMAS: I think that there's currently quite a debate, which we've already heard tonight, about the health effects of dioxin. From our point of view we're basically proceeding with the health advice of the Center for Disease Control -- basically the health experts of the federal government -- to deal with the issues of dioxin that we're facing today. And I think, as was stated earlier, we feel we're doing that in a responsible fashion where we find dioxin. And we do feel that there are health effects from the dioxin. We're trying to regulate that
MacNEIL: I hate to interrupt you, but we are at the end of our time. Dr. Saunders, in San Francisco, thank you very much for joining us; Dr. Silbergeld, in Washington, Mr. Thomas. Mr. Regenstein. Good night, Jim.
LEHRER: Good night, Robin.
MacNEIL: Thanks very much. That's all for tonight. We will be back tomorrow night. I'm Robert MacNeil. Good night.
The MacNeil/Lehrer Report
Producing Organization
NewsHour Productions
Contributing Organization
National Records and Archives Administration (Washington, District of Columbia)
If you have more information about this item than what is given here, or if you have concerns about this record, we want to know! Contact us, indicating the AAPB ID (cpb-aacip/507-n58cf9k170).
Episode Description
This episode's headline: Dioxin. The guests include LEWIS REGENSTEIN, Environmental Writer; LEE THOMAS, Environmental Protection Agency; Dr. ELLEN SILBERGELD, Environmental Defense Fund; In San Francisco (Facilities: KQED-TV): Dr. JAMES SAUNDERS, Dow Chemical. Byline: In New York: ROBERT MacNEIL, Executive Editor; In Washington: JIM LEHRER, Associate Editor; LEWIS SILVERMAN, Producer; MAURA LERNER, Reporter
Created Date
War and Conflict
Military Forces and Armaments
Copyright NewsHour Productions, LLC. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License (
Media type
Moving Image
Embed Code
Copy and paste this HTML to include AAPB content on your blog or webpage.
Producing Organization: NewsHour Productions
AAPB Contributor Holdings
National Records and Archives Administration
Identifier: 97208 (NARA catalog identifier)
Format: 1 inch videotape
If you have a copy of this asset and would like us to add it to our catalog, please contact us.
Chicago: “The MacNeil/Lehrer Report; Dioxin,” 1983-06-07, National Records and Archives Administration, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed June 20, 2024,
MLA: “The MacNeil/Lehrer Report; Dioxin.” 1983-06-07. National Records and Archives Administration, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. June 20, 2024. <>.
APA: The MacNeil/Lehrer Report; Dioxin. Boston, MA: National Records and Archives Administration, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from