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Everybody’s Backyard Citizens’ Dioxin Conference Takes on Global Chemical Crisis BY CAROL S. STALL SHOULD PEOPLE DIE to keep telephone poles clear of dandelions? So disposable diapers can be whiter than white? For Barbie and Ken? Those were just some of the questions asked by participants in the Third Citizens’ Conference on Dioxin and Other Synthetic Hormone Disrupters, held March 16-17 in Baton Rouge. The resounding answer returned by the conference was “No!” Nearly six hundred scientists, lawyers, veterans, environmentalists and grassroots activistsonly two hundred and fifty had been expectedconverged on the most notoriously polluted region of one of the most polluted U.S. states, to confront the problem of dioxin. Conference attendees spanned the racial and eth nic spectrum, and included a smattering of international participants. “It’s terrific that so many people from different backgrounds came together,” said Stephen Lester, a conference coordinator and science director for the Citizens Clearinghouse on Toxic Waste, headquartered in Falls Church, Virginia. “This was a major step towards building a diverse strategic planning group on dioxin issues.” The pressure to do something about increasingly widespread dioxin pollution has been building for some time, but was accelerated by the fall 1994 release of the EPA’s The EPA study acknowledged, for the first time, what had already become the scientific consensus: that “dioxin and related compounds may cause adverse effects at current levels of exposure for the general population.” The EPA report added that dioxin, even at very low doses, may cause a wide array of adverse effects, ranging from cancer to attention deficit disorder \(see THE BATON ROUGE conference, organized to develop strategies for reducing the production of dioxins and Carol Stall is a free-lance writer and a correspondent for Women’s International News Gathering Service. Travel funds for this article were provided by The Foundation for a Compassionate Society. similar chemicals, also served as a springboard for related issues, such as organizing and assisting “poisoned” communities, getting scientists involved in ecological issues, and addressing environmental racism. One workshop, for example, sought methods to involve more scientists in environmental health studies. Peter Montague, a conference presenter and editor of Rachel’s Environment and Health Weekly \(Annapoentists face in tackling environmental research. “It takes personal integrity and personal courage for scientists to work on politically important issues,” said Montague. He cited lack of funding as a key problem for public health research. Montague added that denial of research money from corporate polluters can translate into “a ruthless punishing of scientists working in the public interest.” While some participants focused on scientific research and involvement, most came with activism in mind. Tom Goldtooth, National Director of the Indigenous Environmental Net work, came with a group of fourteen delegates from various indigenous American grassroots communities. The group is especially concerned about dioxin and other “percially in the Great Lakes region, Alaska and the Northwest Territorieswhere cooling air appears to be dropping large amounts of these particulates from industrial areas. “Our womenfolk,” said Goldtooth, “are being contaminated with PCB and dioxins in their breast milk, and they’re passing it on to their babies. So we are very concerned about these things for future generations. Our women are our first environment….It’s common sense that we have to stop the production of these dioxins.” Goldtooth described one goal of the conference as “merging the environmental movement with the environmental justice movement.” He saw in the meeting the beginnings of a real national campaign, and emphasized the wider cultural potential of the environmental perspective. “What’s changing is that some people are starting to question their whole relationship to the earth.” Another conference participant, Chester Williams, is a member of a Texarkana orga nization, Friends United for a Safe Environ said he became acquainted with dioxin and environ mental justice issues when a local creosote wood-treat ment plantsituated near the mostly black Carver Terrace communitywas designated a Superfund site. “People are still dying from it….If I’d been black, that’s where I’d have lived,” said Williams. Con sidering the outcome of the conference, he added, “It’s heartening to see other people learning what we found out a long time agoit shows the movement is growing.” MANY OF THE GRASSROOTS activists said they had initially become active out of self-de fenseas victims of local toxic incursions. People brought their own backyard issues and experiences to share. As a location for dangerous toxic incidents, Texas was painfully well-represented. Denial of research money from corporate polluters can translate into ruthless punishing of scientists. 6 APRIL 19, 1996