Sunday, January 29, 2017

The Dioxin War


Book Review: 'The Dioxin War' by Robert Allen


Although dioxin was a major cause of Toxic Disasters throughout the interval from the mid- 1960s to the mid-1980s, there is a surprising dearth of books on the topic that are aimed at a general audience.


'The Dioxin War' (201 pp), published in the UK in 2004 by Pluto Press, remains one of the few narratives about dioxin aimed at a lay readership (as opposed to a large volume of technical books on dioxin).

'The Dioxin War' is first and foremost a polemic, one aimed at Monsanto, Merck, Dow Chemical Company, Boehringer Ingelheim, and other chemical companies. The book also is withering in its criticism of agencies such as the US EPA, and the small but influential groups of scientists who ally with the chemical companies and work in concert with them to stymie efforts to impose stricter regulations against the dispersal of contaminants.

'The Dioxin War' is organized into chapter that cover - in loose chronological order - efforts by conscientious scientists, activists, and lawyers to expose the truth about the toxicity of dioxin in the face of determined campaigns by the chemical companies to have dioxin classified as a mild poison that causes, at most, acne.





Some of the more famous Toxic Disasters of the 70s and early 80s are covered here, including Seveso and Times Beach. But author Allen also mentions incidents that I was not aware of, such as the infamous Holmsburg prison experiments done in 1965 - 1966 (in exchange for a payment of $10,000, Albert Kligman, a physician hired by Dow Chemical, painted dioxin on the skin of inmates).

I also was not aware of the 1979 train derailment that took place outside the small Missouri town of Sturgeon; 20,000 gallons of a wood preservative - produced by Monsanto - spilled onto the ground. Monsanto representatives told the townspeople there was minimal health risks associated with the spill..........but the townspeople noticed that the EPA workers at the spill site were wearing spacesuits..........

Nor was I aware that - possibly for decades - Lysol disinfectant spray contained dioxin. Lysol was widely used in the decades before the advent of the birth control Pill for contraceptive and 'feminine hygiene' purposes..........








I also was unaware of a dioxin disaster that took place in County Tipperary, Ireland, in August 1978. John Hanrahan, a dairy farmer, noticed that a strange-smelling fog had formed on his land, and his animals were coughing and tearing. In 1980, many animals on the Hanrahan farm, and those of neighboring farms, were dying from wasting disease; many cows were delivering stillborn or malformed calves.

Hanrahan suspected that the Merck, Sharpe, and Dohme plant in nearby Ballydine was to blame; the factory, which had opened in 1976, was a major area employer and enjoyed good relations with county politicians and bureaucrats. 

In the early 80s, after Hanrahan filed a lawsuit against Merck, it was revealed that the factory's incinerator was improperly operated, and as a consequence, a variety of toxic halogenated compounds were being regularly discharged from the plant.Dioxin was detected in the milk from Hanrahan's cattle.




Hanrahan's litigation against Merck became one of the lengthiest and most expensive legal battle in Irish history. 

After finishing 'The Dioxin War' I had mixed feelings about its worthiness as an investigation into dioxin and its role in public health and environmental health. The book certainly contains ample documentation in the form of extensive Notes and references which take up about a fifth of its pages.

However, the narrative tends to awkwardly jump back and forth between topics and timelines, and regularly interrupts passages of straight reportage with lengthy segments that are editorial in nature.

Author Allen also displays more than a little naivety. In the chapter devoted to the contamination of Missouri in the 1970s through the actions of 'waste oil' applications by Russel Bliss, Allen too readily believes Bliss's contention that he was just a good 'ole boy who 'didn't know nothing' about 'chemistry'........despite the considerable evidence to the contrary.

It's also obvious that, with a 2004 publication date, 'The Dioxin War' lacks more timely coverage of events over the past 13 years.

When all is considered, however, despite its flaws, 'The Dioxin War' remains a reasonably good overview of a subject that is difficult to cover in terms of both technical and sociopolitical aspects. 

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