I Do Not Think That Word Means What You Think It Means

Today's word in question:  "safe"

The Environmental Protection Agency is holding public hearings today to review a proposed safe exposure limit for dioxin, a known carcinogen and endocrine disruptor produced as a common industrial byproduct.

It's all but impossible to avoid exposure to dioxin. Research done by the Environmental Working Group has shown that adults are exposed to 1,200 times more dioxin than the EPA is calling safe "” mostly through eating meat, dairy and shellfish "” and mothers pass it on to babies in the womb and in breast milk. A nursing infant ingests an amount 77 times higher than what the EPA has proposed as safe exposure. (Formula is also widely contaminated with the stuff.)

If you tell me that despite falling cancer incidence and survival rates and longer life-spans, we are all exposed to a chemical at 1200x its "safe" level, I might argue that we have defined the safe level too low.  Of course, the author draws just the opposite conclusion, arguing the standard needs to be tightened.

Two observations

  1. Things are getting better.  Apparently dioxin emissions (mostly from burning trash) have fallen by 90+% over the last twenty years.  In the blog post above, the author lambastes the EPA for dragging its feet on this standard for 30 years, but the lack of it sure does not seem to have been a problem

  2. I am not sure how setting a dioxin standard by the EPA is going to help.  Since most dioxin makes its way into the food chain (such as into dairy products), I suppose this would then give the government license to pound dairy farmers for the dioxin content of their products.  But what does this get us, and how is this the dairy farmers' fault?  For the last 30 years, as described at this site, the EPA and voluntary efforts by emitters have been working step by step through the pie chart above, knocking off the worst emitters.   You can see that clearly in the change of mix and the overall reduction.  This seems like a smart strategy.


  1. GaryP:

    As we move toward implementing the "precautionary" principle thoughout our society, we move further and further from common sense and toward a "nanny" state that promises to protect us, not just from harm, but from "possible" harm.
    Since, to coin a phrase, "mostly harmless" is a good as any chemical compound (whether naturally occuring or man-made) gets, we are increasingly unable to make adult decisions balancing benefit to risk. We are becoming a nation of children, bullied by the state "for our own good" and dreaming of a golden age that never existed.
    There is an old joke in which two cavemen are saying: "All our food is organic or free range, our water comes from natural springs, our air is totally unpolluted. Why is our average lifespan only 20 years? That's the golden age the enviro-nazi's seek to return us to.

  2. anon:

    Remember, these are the same numbskulls that said "if only Haiti had strong building codes, fewer people would have been injured/killed in the earthquake."

    You set a standard, and voila, problem solved.

  3. Jeff:

    Lowering the acceptable level of any pollutant these days has more to do with control than safety. See the controversy over arsenic levels in water for an example. The EPA changed the limit from 50ppb to 10ppb a few years ago, unfortunately this is below the naturally occurring rate in many areas in the west.

  4. DirtyJobsGuy:

    Note that besides "Other", the major sources of Dioxin are "backyard barrel burning, municipal water treatment sludge processing, and municipal waste incineration". Excluding the hillbilly factor of barrel burning, the municipal sources are there because of other EPA or environmental fad regulation. Resolving these will be big money and unlike private sources, the local governments will go hat in hand to the tax payers.

  5. Reprise8:

    anon - if Haiti had stronger building codes they would not have had any buildings at all. Which come to think of it, may have saved lives since nothing would have collapsed. But the reason Haiti does not have good building codes is not because they're stupid, or no one told them, or someone is exploiting them. They can not afford to build earthqake-proof biuldings because they are too poor. And before we go off on that one, they are too poor because no one there produces anything of value.

  6. ElamBend:

    In a sane world, the progress represented by the chart above would be headline news. Less than 20 years and we make major progress without a substantial change in life or economy. The marginal revolution marches on.

  7. epobirs:

    Part of the problems is mere semantics. The stuff has one of the most evil sounding names one could find outside of a comic book. This makes it hard to keep the discussion rational.

  8. Dr. T:

    Dioxin is an unwanted trace contaminant in the manufacture of some herbicides and defoliants. It is a toxic compound that causes chloracne (a severe skin problem) in people who were directly exposed to defoliants such as Agent Orange. Dioxin is a teratogen that causes birth defects in some animal species. Low-quality carcinogenicity studies performed over thirty years ago showed that specially-bred, tumor-prone lab mice were more likely to get tumors (not necessarily cancers) after exposure to dioxin. Thus, dioxin was labeled carcinogenic.

    However, there is no reliable evidence that dioxin is a human teratogen or a human carcinogen. There have been multiple industrial or environment accidents where people had heavy exposures to dioxin-containing herbicides: no increased rates of birth defects were seen in the babies of pregnant victims and no increased rates of cancers were seen in all the victims (who have been followed medically for decades).

    The biggest problem in toxicology is that some researchers, nearly all environmentalists, and the politicians and reporters who jump on bandwagons continually misrepresent toxicity studies. Researchers expose select strains of lab animals to chemical doses that are hundreds to thousands of times greater than any likely human exposure. If these animals develop any medical problems, the chemical is considered toxic to humans. If the newborns of exposed female animals have any birth defects, the chemical is considered to be a human teratogen. And, if any of the animals develop tumors (cancerous or not), the chemical is considered to be a human teratogen. If studies on chimpanzees or monkeys show no adverse effects, that never negates the classifications made by studying fragile hamsters, guinea pigs, or lab mice. Then, to compound the problem, the toxicity results are extrapolated to zero. In other words, the pseudo-toxicologists falsely claim that toxicity can occur with any exposure level. This is absurd: we are exposed to carbon monoxide every time we drive in traffic (or cook over a flame), but low-level exposures cause no harm. We get exposed to arsenic in our foods, but our bodies were designed to handle small amounts of arsenic, and we aren't poisoned. For every chemical, there is an exposure level that causes no detectable harm, but federal law states that carcinogens cannot be in foods at any concentrations. As our instruments improved, we went from detecting parts per thousands to parts per million to parts per billion to parts per trillion to parts per quadrillion. The law about carcinogens was passed in the 1930s, when few chemicals could be detected at less than 1 part per thousand. We're regulating ourselves to an economic death when we apply modern technology to an antiquated law.

  9. Benjamin Cole:

    I just wish the right-wing would spend as much effort debunking what our coprolitic defense establishment considers “safe” and the amount of money we spend for “safety.”

    We have a huge Navy to “keep shipping lanes open.” Who wants to close shipping lanes? I won’t even mention that surface ships can be sunk quickly in real battles (as the S. Koreans found out recently).

    Who is going to invade the US? Could we not defend our shores with a few attack subs, a few ballastic missile subs, and perhaps some land-based missiles?

    Any attacking force would be wiped out before they got here, and their homeland too.

    We will spend $10 trillion in the next 10 years on “national defense.” You might want to call it “national patronage.” The War on Terror should be renamed “The War on Your Pocketbook.”

    Some quick math: We have no nation-states as enemies, and even the hostile states have no militaries to speak of. We will spend $10 trillion in next 10 years on national defense. Let’s assume there are 10,000 terrorists in the world. That’s a big estimate, but let’s just say.

    Okay, $10 trillion divided by 10,000 equals $1 billion.

    We will spend $1 billion per terrorist in the next 10 years.

    I hope you feel “safe.”

  10. Pat Moffitt:

    EPA's "test methods" shows a high percent of all man-made chemicals are carcinogenic. But what about natural compounds? The stuff we actually eat like carrots and broccoli or drink like coffee and wine?---Well, they don't test them. But Berkeley's Dr Bruce Ames does. http://potency.berkeley.edu/herp.html

    Here's a real world question for EPA-- How many carrot sticks equal your Dioxin risk?------- And is there no shame?

  11. Gil:

    What a hollow joke GaryP. Truth is if people can avoid disease then their life expectancy is bound to be high. Similarly, there's something be said that life expectancies over time are averages. Since infant mortality was very high in the olden days this brings down the average of the life expectancy then when compared to nowadays. Once ye olde people have escaped the diseases of childhood then their life expectancy was reasonably high.

    Looking for a scientific proof for the booze and smokes diet being the healthiest diet, Pat Moffitt? Broccoli is closest food to being a cancer vaccine. Then again farmers will say "if you want a world population of seven billion people then you have to use chemical fertilisers and pesticides".

  12. Jerry:

    DR. T - Right on! I don't think enough of the public "at-large" truly understand what these levels are and just becasue you can measure something doesn't necessarily mean it is harmful.

  13. anon:

    reprise -- that was my point.

  14. William Moore:

    Andrea the Giant in the Princess Bride. Do I win anything?

  15. Pat Moffitt:

    Gil-- It seems you are unaware a compound can be both carcinogenic and inhibit carcinogenesis (antioxidant). (EPA doesn't account for this either) Caffeic acid naturally found in green leaf produce, root crops to fruit is a good example. EPA denies context, utilizes a method that in no way replicates the risks we actually face. (And smoking is bad the dose is huge compared to EPA protocols- stop using a strawman). At some point you need to look at the science-- the dose makes the poison- except at EPA.

    The fear of dioxin stopped the use of hexachlorophene (Phisohex) decades ago -- One thing we know about our stopping hexachlorophene -staph started killing more people shortly thereafter. Pediatric nurseries were hit first. But these were real deaths--- and only lab mice count for regulatory purposes.

  16. GaryP:

    I'm not sure I understand your point. However, my point is that the in the "Garden of Eden" life was "nasty, brutish, and short." Modern industrial society has greatly enhanced the length and quality of our lives. You cannot separate out the parts of modern society you like (long lives, plenty of food, low infant mortality, comfortable homes, plenty of energy to cool and heat buildings, Ipads) from the parts that concern you (industrial chemicals, CO2 emissions, mining, oil drilling, logging, etc.).
    Wanting to keep all the "nice" things provided by an industrial civilization and eliminate all the "bad" things is an childish dream. We can have environmental standards and reduce pollution (as demonstrated in the post) but we cannot go back to "living in harmony with nature" without going back to massive infant and maternal mortality, epidemics, and short lifespans. Modern medicine and modern comforts are not natural and are part of the incredibly complex industrial society that also produce industrial chemicals and pollution. Personally, I want to continue to live "unnaturally," accepting that low levels of pollution with industrial chemicals, CO2 emissions, and other "scars upon the land" are essential to maintain that lifestyle (for me and my fellow man).

  17. John David Galt:

    Remember how the makers of Ben & Jerry's ice cream campaigned on their packages for this limit to be drastically lowered because "there is no known safe dose"? But then they suddenly shut up, without any explanation? Here's why:


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