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From AJR,   June 1993

Whatever Happened to Dioxin?   

By Vicki Monks
Vicki Monks, a Maryland-based journalist, has written for Rolling Stone and Vogue and reported for National Public Radio.      

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Unlike the news outlets that followed Keith Schneider's lead in reporting the revisionist view of dioxin, the Washington Post had been covering it well before August 1991. But two-and-a-half months before Schneider's watershed piece, the newspaper, for no apparent reason, dropped its coverage of the issue.

The Post's Malcolm Gladwell was among the first reporters to embrace the "new thinking" on dioxin. On May 31, 1990, Gladwell wrote a story stating that many scientists had "sharply reduced their estimates of dioxin's cancer-causing potential." He reported that a study reevaluating slides of tumor cells developed in rats exposed to dioxin found that the chemical is "only a weak carcinogen."

Gladwell didn't mention that the study had been funded by the paper industry, nor that other scientists had disputed its results. Gladwell says it wasn't necessary to identify the study's sponsor. "It's not something we always do," he says.

Two months later, on July 27, Gladwell was at the head of the pack again when he reported on Vernon Houk's so-called reversal on dioxin risk.

In January 1991, Gladwell reported on the results of another dioxin-related cancer study. His interpretation was the opposite of that of most other reporters. A New York Times article by Warren E. Leary was headlined "High Dioxin Levels Linked to Cancer." The Wall Street Journal said, "U.S. Study Suggests Exposure to Dioxin for Long Periods Can Boost Cancer Risk."

The headline in the Washington Post read, "Extensive Study Finds Reduced Dioxin Danger." In the story, Gladwell asserted, "The results suggest that public concern over the levels of dioxin typically found in the environment may be largely unfounded. It also appears to bolster the growing view of many scientists that U.S. policy toward the chemical..are [sic] far too strict and that millions of dollars are being wasted in its unnecessary regulation."

Marilyn Fingerhut, who conducted the study for the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, disputes Gladwell's conclusions. Her study did not examine the type of low exposures found in the general population, she says. It could not prove that low exposures are safe.

The study did find that workers exposed to high levels of dioxin for more than a year were at much greater risk of getting cancer. An editorial accompanying the study results in the January 24, 1991, New England Journal of Medicine said, "The hypothesis that low exposures are entirely safe for humans is distinctly less tenable now than before."

Gladwell says he chose not to quote the scientist who wrote the editorial because he didn't know whether the author's views represented a scientific consensus. Instead, he quoted George Carlo, whom he identified as "one of the nation's leading dioxin experts."

At the time, Carlo had not published a paper on dioxin in a peer-reviewed journal, a publication that only publishes papers reviewed by scientists in the same field. More important, Carlo is a specialist in risk assessment and management whose clients then included the Chlorine Institute, a trade group, and Dow Chemical – both affected by dioxin regulations. Gladwell did not cite Carlo's industry connections. No one else was quoted.

When asked why he only quoted Carlo, Gladwell responded, "None of these stories are intended to be the last word on the subject... There are trends in scientific thinking. I wrote about one of them. I don't think there is any overwhelming bias."

Gladwell dropped the issue after an April 1, 1991, six-inch item in which he stated that there is "new evidence showing that dioxin poses far less risk of cancer than previously thought..."

A few weeks later, on May 25, 1991, the Post ran an unbylined AP story on Vernon Houk's flip-flop – almost a year after Gladwell reported it. Since then, the newspaper has essentially stopped covering dioxin's risks.

According to a database search, the Post's only coverage since Schneider's August 1991 article has been a January 1992 Jack Anderson column on the paper industry's anti-regulatory campaign; a March 26, 1992, editorial on regulations; and a May 26, 1992, story on how Bill Clinton, when governor of Arkansas, accommodated the state's paper industry by promulgating weak dioxin control regulations.

The March 26 editorial called for better understanding of environmental risks. "If dioxin is as dangerous a cause of cancer as most scientists thought a decade ago, there's a strong case for spending a lot of money to scrub it out of the environment," the editorial stated. "But if it is in fact less dangerous, as some scientists now believe, that money could do more elsewhere to protect public health."

Washington Post science editor Curt Suplee says he only dimly remembers the dioxin stories that appeared before he took over the science desk in December 1991, and that he is unaware of any important developments or dioxin studies since then that warranted coverage. Suplee, however, did mention dioxin in print recently. In a March 14 review of Michael Fumento's new book, "Science Under Siege," Suplee wrote that Fumento's "chapters on the Alar-scare fiasco or the dioxin horror-boom are excellent cautionary reminders that the latest catastrophe-of-the-week may eventually prove to be vastly less dangerous than originally believed, if not outright negligible." – V.M.