The dioxin caper almost By Linda Rocawich When it comes to the disposal of toxic wastes, one substance has probably caused more acrimonious public debate than any other. That’s dioxin, or 2,3,7,8 which the Environmental Protection Agency has called “perhaps the most toxic small molecule known to man,” and which scientists suspect is a carcinogen and a cause of genetic mutations. But a quiet attempt last spring to transport 4,600 gallons of dioxin waste from Missouri to Texas for disposal at a Deer Park incinerator caused nary a peepbecause the public never heard about it. Other attempts to dispose of the compound have not been so quiet. Dioxin is a byproduct of the manufacture of chlorinated phenols. Because of its toxicity there is no known use for dioxin, but the substance has a notorious history nonetheless. A cloud of pure dioxin was released over Seveso, Italy, in a July 1976 industrial mishap. The incident was followed by the defoliation of a large surrounding area, the deaths of innumerable animals, and widespread illness among the townspeople: skin irritations, nausea, diarrhea, damage to internal organs were common. Seveso was evacuated and shut off from the world. The former residents cannot go home. The Italian government has been told that the town will be uninhabitable for ten to 15 years. What it does At the height of the debacle, the Italians sought advice from Prof. Ton That Tung, a Vietnamese chemist lamentably familiar with the effects of dioxin in his homeland. According to The Nation, he told them to “consider that dioxin causes total paralysis of the capacity for immunity in the body.” He went on to explain will provide lethal doses for a billion guinea pigs; that where it has spread, cows give birth to stillborn calves, chickens become sterile, women stop ovulating; the number of miscarriages rises, as does the delivery of deformed babies. Dioxin alters the chromosomes, attacks the lymph, sweat and thymus glands, and provokes skin diseases and edema of the eye and causes cancer of the liver. It dissolves in fat but not in water; the body’s metabolism cannot handle it, so it is not expelled but remains in the tissues of glands, kidneys and liver.” Dioxin is a contaminant of Agent Orange, the defoliant used by the U.S. Air Force in Vietnam; the significant increase in birth defects there has been directly linked to indiscriminate spraying of the chemical. After the American command grounded its defoliation planes in 1970, it took the Air Force seven years of well-publicized controvery and $5 million to figure out a safe way to rid the world of 45 pounds of dioxin in drums of leftover Agent Orange. This September, the Pentagon very gingerly packed the stuff off to the middle of the Pacific Ocean and had it burned on a Dutch incinerator ship. About $70 million worth of defoliants went up in smoke with the lethal chemical. If the U.S. military was so careful, why would anyone seriously consider burning dioxin in densely populated Harris County? And why didn’t we hear about it? An accident could have been calamitous; even a flawless operation would have released some dioxin into the Houston atmosphere. Texas law doesn’t require a company to notify the state of plans to dispose of dioxin. Fortunately, Rollins Environmental Services, Inc., the Deer Park disposal firm approached about handling the dioxin shipment from Missouri, generally requests a go-ahead from the appropriate regulatory agencies when asked to incinerate out-of-state wastes. With Rollins’ dioxin query, the Texas Water Quality Board \(now part of the the Texas Air Control Board got into the act. It’s possible, however, that if the toxin had been produced in Texas instead of Missouri, the state wouldn’t have been notified at all. The case throws some light on a dangerous gap in Texas’ regulatory authority. The batch of dioxin in question was accidentally produced several years ago during the manufacture of hexachlorophene by NEPACCO, a pharmaceutical and farm chemical company in Verona, Mo. NEPACCO had been leasing its plant from Syntex Agribusiness, Inc., and when NEPACCO went bankrupt, Syntex got stuck with the dioxin. There had already been one disaster. In 1971, some of NEPACCO’s orphaned dioxin waste was accidentally sprayed on a horse arena, killing a number of horses, cats, dogs, and wild birds and mammals. The Missouri Division of Health and investigators from the federal Center for Disease Control in Atlanta Hugh Yantis worked for three years, finally tracing the cause of death back to the waste Syntex had unwittingly acquired from NEPACCO. At present, the dioxin is dissolved in chlorinated liquid at a concentration of 300 to 350 parts per million \(the maximum dioxin level the EPA allows in stored in steel tanks in Missouri. Syntex has been trying to get rid of its toxic legacy ever since it was found on company property in August of 1974. Dioxin disposal is not a simple matter. Incineration at extremely high temperatures \(the furnaces on the Dutch ship that took care of the Air Force’s 45 pounds were heated to a temperature of doing the job, but traces remain even after burning. And that’s if all goes well. There are dangers of leakage during both transportation and incineration. Syntex, which had been turned down by several disposal firms by the time it contacted Rollins in March about its di 10 NOVEMBER 4, 1977
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