Sizing up the risk of dioxin in paper. CONTAMINANT TRACES
Small amounts of highly toxic dioxin are showing up in a range of paper products - from disposable diapers to paper towels. These levels of contamination do not pose an immediate risk to human health, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, which released its long-delayed national dioxin study yesterday.Skip to next paragraph
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Of particular concern: food-packaging products and personal-care items.
The disclosures of dioxin in paper products came Wednesday, after the environmental group Greenpeace released a packet of leaked documents showing that the industry has known about the problem since February, if not before. The link between paper mills and dioxin has been confirmed by a separate study by the industry and the EPA.
The dioxin, a controversial and toxic contaminant, is apparently formed in a chlorine bleaching process used in about 90 United States kraft paper mills, which produce most of white paper con sumers use.
Most scientists are not sure what threat, if any, the tainted paper poses, since they are not at all certain how dangerous dioxin is to humans beings.
``We just don't know,'' says Dr. Jake Ryan, a research scientist with Health and Welfare Canada, an agency similar to the US Food and Drug Administration. ``One of the big problems is that people have been looking for a long-term low-level effect in people. And to date, they haven't found one.''
Some studies have shown, however, that the substance - 2,3,7,8 tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin, or TCDD - has caused cancer, birth defects, and damage to the immune system of animals. Because of the new evidence about paper, environmentalists are now calling for the EPA to restrict or eliminate TCDD and other dioxins in paper.
``We're talking about direct human contact,'' says Dr. Ellen Silbergeld, a toxicologist with the Environmental Defense Fund. ``It is irresponsible not to show concern.''
But the industry is urging more testing.
``The next step, from our standpoint, concerns a broad range of things,'' says Red Cavaney, president of the American Paper Institute, the industry group that is coordinating the dioxin studies. The industry plans to expand its program to test all bleach kraft paper mills, continue its risk assessment of the human hazard, and investigate exactly how the dioxin is formed in the bleaching process.
On Sept. 1, the Monitor first reported the link between paper mills and dioxin established in the joint study by the EPA and the industry. At the time, government researchers had found detectable amounts of TCDD in the discharges of mills in Jay, Maine, International Falls, Minn., and Wauna, Ore. Two other mills - in Chillicothe, Ohio, and Lufkin, Texas - did not show detectable discharges.
According to Greenpeace officials, it was the Monitor article that prompted an American Paper Institute employee to step forward and leak several internal documents. It was the documents that prompted further questions about TCDD in paper products.