Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Book Review: The Dioxin War, by Robert Allen

The Dioxin War
Truth & Lies About a Perfect Poison
by Robert Allen
review by Tim Barton

"We're failing to deal with dioxin not because of any lack of information about its dangers to human health, but because of political and economic considerations."
- Dr Samuel Epstein, quoted in Greenpeace Magazine, 1991

Rob Allen's book The Dioxin War, a kind of sequel / companion-piece to the earlier books, Guests of the Nation (with "Tara Jones") and Waste Not, Want Not, features case-studies from around the world. In each one the chemical dioxin has damaged health (whether through industry, as in Times Beach; Seveso; Union Carbide or the military, as in Agent Orange in Indo-China), and in each case he has tried to interview people on both sides who have been affected by disputes that have followed exposure.

In the book a fair few workers, at various levels in and outside relevant chemical corporations or political bodies, show a genuine belief in the harmless nature of the products that have spread around. Some still believe they are harmless, some have learnt that they are not. Some were, as individuals, in the "spread the muck around as part of my job", but are also now in the "harmed by that shit" group. We must make our own minds up who knew what when, in so far as there is evidence to do so. But the overriding feeling is that the corporate polluters that are at the top of the stack are lying to everyone, public, workers, middle-management, and that it is very difficult to name them and survive the ensuing litigation.

"To those who bear the risk, exposure to poisons is a matter of life and death. Decisions about poisons which disrupt the basic mechanisms of life and the integrity of future generations raise profound moral questions. Society cannot afford to entrust such decisions to corporate or political entities that exempt themselves from the restraints of morality and ethics."
- Van Strum, in The Politics of Penta, Greenpeace, 1989

The above quote says it all really. It is works like The Dioxin Wars that will bring this issue to a head, as public exposure of these is very limited. Sure, "everyone" has heard of Silent Spring (yeah, not many of us at all really, but thankfully critical mass doesn't require "many" to know - just a few, and the right few, in the right place… and that is not easy either), but that was nearly half a century back, and DDT's been banned right? Well, not entirely, and not everywhere, and the effects don't magically disappear just because the powder ain't sprayed no more, anyway. The public need wider exposure to these issues. And they simply don't get that exposure. The media is fearful of being sued, when it wants to run the story in the first place. If they run the tale at all, they wrap it up in so many ifs ands and buts that most readers will completely fail to get the message at all, and if they do, it is rare that the story run names names or dares to show how the little tales of this little company just here who had a little mishap and lied a bit, naughty naughty, are frankly representative on every level bar one - they got caught and then didn't cover it up ruthlessly enough… And the "mishaps" are all too often standard operating procedure.

For example, many incinerators have too little fuel to guarantee running at the required high temperatures at all times, and so lower the temperature of the burn at night or at weekends on the grounds that no-one will notice - or at least no-one that matters, such as an inspector (who must often give notice if visiting). Some have been caught keeping two logs, a true one and the one shown to visitors - I doubt that this is not common practice, with the possible extra spin of having just the lying log in the first place, and simply not recording leaks, temperature drops, etc.

It is also common for the filters, which need changing regularly, to be disposed of in ways that entirely undermine the point of filtering toxic shit in the first place, like by stuffing them in the local council landfill, to blow about and contaminate the water table, no names no pack-drill, but I could tell you a tale, involving the statistically spot-on evidence of horrific birth defects and throat cancers; courts ruling such evidence "merely circumstantial"; companies abusing this finding and slapping orders on anyone who puts their name and the word "toxic" into the same library never mind paragraph - but who dump filters in local dumps; national media organizations with video-tapes of this occurring, stack to dump, on flatbed trucks subsequently successfully sued for showing / reporting said tapes due to the court ruling above; et fucking cetera. These bans on saying their name result in less effective news pieces, as they are taken less seriously if names and personalities and locales are not in the tale - not a sexy story for Joe Public.

Robert must be frustrated as all hell by these restrictions on the freedom of speech, having as he must hundreds of these untellable tales. Few publishers would touch such a story, without a journalese being adopted that attributes everything to someone else and never comes out and actually says anything that is not in quotes; that contextualizes everything interesting in a stifling web of ifs ands and buts in the interests of some spurious definition of "objectivity"; or further panders to this dangerous version of "objectivity" that destroys the power of the argument, by then giving lip-service to the gainsayers and liars…

Pluto Press, who have bravely given Robert at least some head, have also succeeded in producing a rather bowdlerized version of what Robert really had to say. The book nonetheless achieves what it sets out to, especially if you read the notes, where much of the real meat is hidden away. At the end of it, you should be angry cynical and scared. And then you should want to act… And there's the rub? What the hell do you DO? Grab a gun? That's what you'll want to do, but of course, that won't get you very far. The highest level antagonists in this tale probably, ultimately, live on Caribbean islands sunning themselves and pretending to love their children and grand-children whilst making a world inimical to all life. So, OK, what in hell can you do?

Well, you could start by educating yourself, as no-one can see a path out of the wilderness without an indepth (if depressing) knowledge of the lay of the land. Robert's book is one of the many good places to start. Some of what is below is in there, and much much more...

Organochlorines, a chemical family that includes dioxins and furans, and that are persistent in the environment, have been implicated in many forms of cancer, birth defect, chemical sensitivity, immune deficiency, reduced fertility and feminisation… In common between these things is a severe reduction in the bodies ability to deal with even normal day-to-day toxic assault. Organochlorines, or many of them anyway, suppress the immune system. Thus, they are at the root of many modern maladies, and not only in humans or even mammals. In a 2004 news item in New Scientist, puzzlement was expressed over the radical decline in amphibians across the globe. The piece briefly mentioned pesticides as possibly implicated to some small extent, but the tenor of the piece was very much "But we really have no idea what the problem is!".

This is nonsense. The chemicals involved in at least some of the pesticides that "may" cause the negative health effects seen in amphibians are related to organochlorines. Organochlorines themselves are created elsewhere, too. For example in burning plastics, which are seen sending up tendrils of acrid black smoke all over the planet - and more importantly, usually not seen at all.

In western nations, where the law and enforcement agencies limit open-air burning of these substances, ironically even worse one are produced by, instead, burning waste at still higher temperatures in incinerators. These plants are intended to reduce the volume of waste as much as possible, and to kill germs etc, and tear apart the molecules that form toxic substances. However, it seems that many of the worst dioxins form after this process, as the substances in the flue of a waste plant cool and condense. There is copious evidence of the way these chemicals form, or how they travel across the globe, polluting areas as far away from the source as it possible to get, and of exactly how they act in the body…

In the words of the Greenpeace report, Body of Evidence, "One of the more notable consequences of technological development in the Twentieth Century is the dispersal throughout the global environment of thousands of chemicals that are solely the products of human endeavor. Only a fraction of these are made for commerce; the overwhelming majority are unwanted and often uncharacterized by-products of manufacture, use and disposal".

And here is where "political and economic considerations" step in to wreak their havoc. We know what chemicals are effecting global amphibian decline; what chemicals are rendering Great Lakes marine life inedible, and aiding their decline; what causes severe health problems in humans globally, and especially around chemical plants that leak organochlorines and PCB's; which plants they are; who owns them...

But the authorities and the owners of the chemical industry deny all knowledge and produce paid-for science to demonstrate that everything we know is wrong. They obstruct in the courts, saying, "Yes, that shows a statistical correlation, but you know, statistics lie and are just circumstantial, so, Gentlemen of the jury, you must ignore these facts as they must be ruled out of court". They pay for research, the researchers feeling beholden to industry by virtue of having a job because of them, and so the reports begin and conclude with the sort of interpretation of the facts that will best suit their pay-masters, forcing / allowing the courts to accept untruths on (literal) "weight of evidence", even if the reports are often, if read more thoroughly, actually quite damning - the anti-industry case just can never match, weight for weight, the sheer tonnage of "objective and scientific" documentation that industry can supply. The chemical industry will sue if you implicate them by name in anything at all, especially if the legal system and it's rich-property-owner clientele have agreed, on the kind of spurious anti-science grounds mentioned above, that precedent is set to ban our speech despite evidence - facts - knowledge... coming out of our ears. As Robert puts it, their "success was due largely to the industry's guerilla tactics and its ability to hire mercenaries", where "their" includes the authorities as well as industry. [p29]

So, a piece in a respected science magazine can, decades after evidence was first produced to show how the post-war chemical industry has been causing a slow but growing apocalypse whose worst effects have yet to be seen, can still claim not to have a clue, really, why amphibians - a kind of hormone-replicator/immune-suppressor chemical canary for the planet - are in massive worldwide decline… Though, frankly, we may all be just a few generations behind the amphibians, it is apparently "cheaper" politically and - ahem - economically to allow things to get worse, in the full knowledge of what we are doing.

However, the long-term costs are of course far far worse if we do not act now.

But are we not acting? Sure, the global and national agreements on pollution control are glacially slow and unresponsive, but the reality is that the filters on plants, etc, have in fact become technically and potentially better and better - and at great expense too. So, industry and government are too slow to react, but they do react. They lie about what they are doing even while they tacitly acknowledge that there is a problem to address by acting at all - why? To stop a public panic? Well, possibly, but that does not sit well in supposed "democracies", unless you accept that the establishment cannot allow its constituent parts to be seriously altered by the mere Mobb - a position I believe to be pertinent. Because of litigation? Ah, likely that is the more conscious reason…

Perhaps some of the buggers even believe their own propaganda, that there is no problem really, just a bunch of over-reacting greenies as usual. After all, what better front-line priest than one who believes his own shit, whether the theocracy at the top of the stack snort at them in as much disbelief (behind their backs) as we do (to their face). Plus, the toxicology, whilst quite public now, came out due not to the lovely goodwill of industry, but was fought for and hardwon by local groups of affected people, and indeed perhaps one guy, Rex Carr, who achieved the honour of getting Monsanto to acknowledge a sorry list of spills, lies, and cover-ups - let's regard them as an outed representative of corporations' in general shall we?:
  • "Monsanto dumped 30 to 40 pounds of dioxin a day into the Mississippi River during the 1970s, knowing that the chemical would get into the St Louis food chain via the river
  • Monsanto knew in the mid-1950s how to reduce the amount of dioxin being formed during the manufacture of its chlorophenols, yet chose not to implement the process until 1980 so that it could save money
  • Monsanto secretly tested corpses of people who had died in accidents and not from illnesses in St Louis for the presence of dioxin and found it in every case, admitting that the chemical could have come from their Krummrich factory - where they manufactured chlorophenols
  • Monsanto had known for half a century that its products contained dioxin yet despite the risk to people using these products said nothing
  • Monsanto knew that 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T - the chemicals that made up Agent Orange - contained high levels of dioxin
  • Monsanto knew about the dioxin content in Lysol, a cleaning product made from Santophen - a Monsanto chemical, and said nothing, despite the knowledge that Lysol was used on children and dogs
  • Monsanto failed to notify and lied to its Krummrich factory workers about the presence and danger of dioxin in chlorophenols so that it would not have to bear the expense of changing its manufacturing processes or the loss of its customers
  • Monsanto knew that its business would be hurt if its customers learned that dioxin was present in its products, so said nothing
  • Shortly after a spill in the Krummrich factory, samples taken by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) revealed dioxin. Monsanto conducted its own measurements and discovered higher levels but they told their workers and the media that they had failed to confirm OSHA's findings
  • Monsanto workers were told there were no significant health problems in those exposed to dioxin, other than a skin condition and a reversible liver problem
  • Monsanto workers were never given any health information about dioxin even though the company knew that exposure could cause cancer, liver damage, nerve damage and other injuries
  • Exposed Monsanto workers were not told of the presence of dioxin and were not given protective clothing even though the company was aware of the dangers of dioxin during the manufacture of chlorophenols
  • Monsanto made every effort it could to conceal the presence of dioxin in its manufacturing processes
  • Monsanto told the EPA that it could not test its products for dioxin because dioxin was too toxic to handle in its labs, yet senior management knew that dioxin was being used in its labs
  • Monsanto had no adequate testing programme for the presence of dioxin and only began to implement a more precise dioxin testing method after the Sturgeon spill
  • Monsanto lied to the Canadian government, claiming that its products contained lesser amounts of dioxin than they actually did
  • Monsanto never warned its customers that its products contained dioxin. Management told one customer there was no detectable amount of dioxin in its 2,4-D
  • Monsanto scientists deliberately manipulated the health studies of workers exposed to dioxin as a result of the explosion at their Nitro factory in 1949"
- pages 23-24, The Dioxin War

Robert is himself an activist, not just a journo. He has been involved personally in many anti-toxics campaigns. This book potentially could have come out in one form or another at any time in the last decade. And more are there to be written on some aspect or another of the relevant elements of the world we live in, as so many aspects of it are tied in to changing the aspects you see here. And you will want to change them (there, of course, is another problem, especially as Pluto are a relatively small and political publisher - how many people who pick up and read this book will not already number themselves amongst those who want change and have their ideas how to get it?).

As an activist, Robert, therefore, has some ideas on what is to be done.

They don't get much of a showing here. Again, the publishing constraints, especially on word count, have been an obstacle here. But the tales he tells show communities engaging in the issues here and there. Many of those involved were already politicized, most were not. Some of them will take what they learnt the hard way about the world with them and on to the next flashpoint in their lives. Books like this may teach more of us without the pain and heartache. Critical mass can be reached. It is a learning process and little about the journey offers comfort. As Robert puts it:

"To know the dioxin story it is also important to understand how the chemical industry works, how scientists reach their conclusions, how governments and regulatory agencies function, how environmentalists agitate and how we as consumers ultimately fuel the system that is poisoning us."
- Robert Allen, The Dioxin War, Pluto 2004

This is the crux of the tale.

Too many people will use the enormity of the state and establishment lies as an excuse to just hide. Too many people will use the evident corruption of the scientific enterprise as an excuse to hide in some hippy dreamland, where science is evil.

That would, of course, be the wrong way to react.

We can learn how scummy industry and government often are. We can learn to take "facts" as presented by media and corporations with a pinch of salt, and if we really get it, can unpick when someone has facts worth believing.

Whether we apply our own intelligence to the way the lies are presented to find the kernel of truth; become experts ourselves; learn to apply Occam's Razor and other logical tools; learn to identify who is in whose pockets; learn the role of ideology in all this; learn who we should ally ourselves with and who will cause more damage as friends than they will if we ignore them; learn how we are complicit in all this as consumers; learn how the authorities will try to use that last fact to make us fail to act as we are "hypocrites"; learn how that is just bollocks, a way of trying to shut up dissent; etc... is up to us.

Robert's work offers one very useful tool in this battle - and remember, read the footnotes!

– Review: Tim Barton - first published 28.11.04 on

The Dioxin War: Truth & Lies About A Perfect Poison
by Robert Allen
Pluto Press, London/Ann Arbor/Dublin

Buy The Dioxin War at