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By Stephen U. Lester

The full story of dioxin is a complex one, and includes coverups, lies, and deceit; data manipulation by corporations and government; and fraudulent claims and faked studies. For the public, it is a story of pain, suffering, anger, betrayal, and rage; of birth defects, cancer and many uncertainties about health problems.

Although many companies have contributed to the dioxin story, three chemical companies have played particularly significant roles: Monsanto, BASF, and Dow Chemical. All three manufactured commercial products that were contaminated with dioxin. All three conducted health studies to evaluate dioxin toxicity, which were then used for many years to support claims that there were no long-term effects, including cancer, from dioxin exposure.

The “Classic” Dioxin Studies

In 1949, an explosion at the Monsanto chemical plant in Nitro, West Virginia, exposed many workers to the dioxin-contaminated herbicide 2,4,5-T. Thirty years later, Monsanto scientists and an independent researcher, Dr. Raymond Suskind, compared death rates among workers they said had been exposed to the death rates of workers who were not exposed. When no differences between the two groups were found, Monsanto claimed that dioxin did not cause cancer and that there were no long-term effects from dioxin exposure (Zack and Suskind, 1980). Monsanto released additional studies from 1980 to 1984 supporting this general conclusion that there was no evidence of adverse health effects, other than chloracne, in workers exposed in the 1949 accident.

Similarly, a chemical accident in 1953 at a BASF trichlorophenol plant in Germany released dioxin-contaminated chemicals, exposing workers and the nearby communities of Mannheim and Ludwigshafen. Again, scientists working for the company looked at cancer rates nearly thirty years later and reported no differences between workers who were exposed and workers who were not exposed during the accident. Both the BASF and the first Monsanto study were released in 1980, shortly after researchers at Dow Chemical Company found that very low levels of dioxin caused cancer in rats. BASF and Monsanto results to challenge EPA efforts to regulate dioxin as a probable human carcinogen, arguing that humans respond differently to dioxin than do laboratory animals. People must be less sensitive, they argued. Otherwise, some evidence of cancer would have been found in the two “classic” studies. But when both the Monsanto and BASF studies were re-examined, the methodology used in both was found to have serious scientific flaws.


Evidence of inaccuracies in both the Monsanto and BASF studies was first revealed during the Kemner vs. Monsanto trial, in which a group of citizens in Sturgeon, Missouri, sued Monsanto for alleged injuries suffered during a chemical spill caused by a train derailment in 1979. While reviewing documents obtained from Monsanto during discovery, lawyers for the victims noticed that in one of the Monsanto studies, certain people were classified as dioxin exposed, while in a later study, the same people were classified as not exposed (Hay, 1992).

These documents revealed that Monsanto scientists omitted five deaths from the dioxin-exposed an put them in the unexposed group. This resulted in a decrease in the observed death rate for the dioxin-exposed group, and an increase in the observed death rate for the non-exposed group. Based on this misclassification of dat, the researchers concluded that there was no relation between dioxin exposure and cancer in humans (Kemner, 1989).

In truth, the death rate in the dioxin exposed group of Nitro workers was 65% higher than expected, with death rated from certain diseased (such as lung, genitourinary, bladder, and lymphatic cancers, and heart disease) showing large increases (Kemner, 1989).

Another Suskind study did not look at an original group of workers known to be dioxin-exposed, but instead looked at hundreds of Monsanto workers at the Nitro facility. Some of the same classification sleight-of-hand was performed in this study. Again, documents uncovered in Kemner vs. Monsanto showed that in fact there were 28 cancer cases in the exposed-worker group and only two in the unexposed group. Suskind, however, reported finding only 14 cancers in the exposed-workers group, compared to six in the unexposed group.

Suskind also examined a group of 37 exposed Monsanto workers during the four-year period following the 1949 accident. Medical documents obtained by Greenpeace from the Sloan-Kettering Institute in Cincinnati, Ohio, where Suskind worked, showed that workers suffered “aches, pain, fatigue, nervousness, loss of libido, irritability, and other symptoms, active skin lesions, and definite patterns of psychological disorders.” All but one of the 37 workers had developed chloracne, a sever skin condition. But in a report to Monsanto at the time, Suskind concluded, without further explanation, that “his finding were limited to the skin;” in other words, all other health effects of dioxin exposure besides chloracne, were not reported (Greenpeace, 1994). Out of these studies grew the industry claim that chloracne is the only long-term effect of dioxin exposure.


The study of BASF workers exposed to dioxin in 1953 was also found to have serious scientific flaws. BASF workers weren’t convinced by company scientists’ claim that there was no evidence of any health problems, other than chloracne, linked to dioxin exposure. They hired their own independent scientists to review the data. This review found that some workers who had developed chloracne, known to occur only in people exposed to high levels of dioxin, were included in the low or unexposed groups in the study. In addition, the exposed group had been “diluted” with 20 supervisory employees who appeared to be unexposed. When these 20 people were removed from the exposed group, significant increases in cancer were found among the exposed workers (Wanchinski, 1989; Rohleder, 1989).

In February 1990, Dr. Cate Jenkins, project manager for the EPA Waste Characterization and Assessment Division of the Office of Solid Waste, alerted EPA’s Science Advisory Board about the revelations of fraud in the BASF and Monsanto studies. The Board, which is an independent group of scientists from outside the agency, had recently completed a review of the cancer data on dioxin, which included the BASF and Monsanto studies and concluded that there was “conflicting” evidence about wheter dioxin caused cancer in humans. The Board recommended that EPA continue to rely on data from animal studies (Jenkins, 1990).

This animal study data however, had been under attack since mid-1987 when, under pressure from industry, EPA stated that they may have “overestimated” the risks of dioxin. The agency was then preparing to weaken their risk estimate from dioxin (Inside EPA, 1987), based largely on the exposure effects reported in the Monsanto and BASF studies.

Jenkins asked EPA to re-evaluate the proposed regulatory changes and to conduct a scientific audit of Monsanto’s dioxin studies. Instead, in August 1990, the EPA Office of Criminal Investigations (OCI) recommended a “full field criminal investigation be initiated by OCI.” After two years, OCI abandoned the investigation because some of the alleged criminal activities were “beyond the statue of limitation.” In fact, EPA actually spent two years investigating Cate Jenkins (Sanjour, 1994).

Subsequent studies on the exposed workers at both the Monsanto plant and the BASF plant have been published in scientific journals. In 1991, the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) re-examined the causes of death in workers at the Nitro plant and found increases in all cancers (Fingerhut, 1991). Similarly, in 1989, data on the BASF workers was re-examined and an increase in all cancers was found for workers with chloracne and with 20 or more years since exposure (Zober, 1990). The re-examination of these once “classic” studies provides strong evidence that the workers exposed to dioxin-contaminated chemicals in these two accidents did indeed suffer higher rates of cancer.

The Dow Chemical Company

Dow Chemical Company produced the herbicides 2,4,5-T and Agent Orange, the defoliant that was sprayed on the jungles of Vietnam. Both herbicides are contaminated with dioxin during the manufacturing process.

In 1965, Dow conducted a series of experiments to evaluate the toxicity of dioxin on inmates at Holmesburg prison in Pennsylvania. Under the direction of Dow researchers, pure dioxin was applied to the skin of prisoners. According to Dow, these men developed chloracne but no other health problems. But no health records are available to confirm these findings, and no follow-up was done on the prisoners, even after several went to the EPA after they were released seeking help because they were sick. EPA did not help them (Casten, 1995).

In 1976, Dow began studies to evaluate whether animals exposed to dioxin would develop cancer. Dow chose very low exposure levels, perhaps anticipating that the studies would show no toxic effects at low levels. Much to their surprise, they found cancer at very low levels, the lowest being 210 parts per trillion (Kociba, 1978).

Around the same time, evidence was found of increased miscarriages in areas of the Pacific Northwest that were sprayed with the herbicide 2,4,5-T (USEPA, 1979). Based on these findings, the EPA proposed a ban on the herbicide (Smith, 1979). Dow brought their scientists to Washington and created enough pressure that by 1979 EPA had decided to only “suspend’ most used of 2,4,5-T. This enabled Dow to continue to produce this poison until 1983, when all uses of the herbicide were finally banned.

In mid-1978, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources found dioxin in fish in the Tittabawassee and Saginaw rivers. Dow discharged wastewater into these rivers from its plant in Midland.

Dow responded in a most unusual way. In November 1978, after an intense four and one half month effort that cost the company $1,8 million, Dow released a report called the “Trace Chemistries of Fire,” (Rawls, 1979) which introduced the idea that dioxin was present everywhere and that its source was combustion and any and all forms burning (Dow, 1978). Dow released the report at a press conference rather than in the scientific literature, which is the standard procedure with scientific studies. The report concluded that dioxin in the Tittabawassee and Saginaw rivers came not from Dow, but from “normal combustion processes that occur everywhere.” A Dow scientist stated at the time that, “We now think dioxin have been with us since the advent of fire” (Rawls, 1979).

Subsequent studies have proven the “combustion theory” claims to be more public relations myth than scientific fact. Measurements of dioxin in lake sediments show that dioxin levels dramatically increased after 1940, (Czuczwa, 1984, 1985, 1986) when chemical companies such as Dow began to make products contaminated with dioxin.

Other studies reveal that prehistoric humans, who burned wood for fuel, did not have significant quantities of dioxin in their bodies. Tissues from 2,000-year-old Chilean Indian mummies did not have dioxin (Ligon, 1989). EPA states in its reassessment that dioxin can be formed through natural combustion sources, but this contribution to levels in the environment “probably is insignificant” (USEPA, 1994a).

Despite the persistent efforts of industry to detoxify dioxin, the weight of evidence from scientific literature today confirms its pervasive toxic effects. Faced with the toxic truth about the dioxin they create, industry has two choices: either stop producing dioxin, or continue to deliberately poison the public policy debate with lies and conflicting information. History tells us they will continue the lies until we make them own up to the truth.

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