Air Date: Week of March 22, 1996
Steve Curwood speaks with housewife and mother turned author and activist Lois Gibbs about her latest handbook, Dying From Dioxin: A Citizens Guide to Reclaiming Our Health. Gibbs got involved in fighting toxic waste while living in the now famous Love Canal neighborhood in upstate New York, where she began fighting for solutions to her family's constant poor health due to chemical dumping.
CURWOOD: Since 1978, the name Lois Gibbs has been synonymous with upstate New York's Love Canal. The Niagara Falls community was built near a toxic waste dump. After years of lobbying and litigation, Ms. Gibbs was successful in forcing the polluter to pay to relocate the residents. The experience convinced Ms. Gibbs that America's toxic problem extended beyond her backyard, so she moved to the Washington, DC, area, and created the Citizens' Clearing House for Hazardous Waste, a national organization whose goal is to stop pollutants at their source. The group's latest focus is on dioxin, and Ms. Gibbs has recently published a book called Dying from Dioxin: A Citizen's Guide to Reclaiming Our Health. Lois Gibbs says she began this latest crusade after she read an EPA report which said there is literally no place in America that is dioxin free.
GIBBS: I thought I moved my family away from all toxics. I thought that they were healthy. And when I read that EPA report in September '94, and I realized that every time I was feeding my child a glass of milk I was feeding my child dioxin, I became angry again.
CURWOOD: I need a little chemistry lesson here, Lois Gibbs. Just what is dioxin?
GIBBS: Dioxin comes as a byproduct of burning products and containers and manufacturing of things with chlorine in it. And in the burning of solid waste, garbage, in an incinerator, dioxin is produced in the stack, and it travels out the stack and into the community. So it's not deliberately made; it's really a byproduct of burning plastics and other products that have chlorine in them.
CURWOOD: How did it get to be the major health problem that you see it is today?
GIBBS: What happened is that when the dioxin comes out and travels in the grass, cows eat this grass and they get a little dioxin in their body each time they eat. This dioxin in their body is stored in their body, and it bioaccumulates, and then when we drink the milk or we eat the cow's meat in our hamburgers, we as human beings get little bits of dioxin in our body, and it is stored in our body. And so over time what has happened is that the American public, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, is at or near full of dioxin. And what that means is that everybody has enough dioxin in their bodies, or almost enough dioxin in their body, that any other exposure will put them over the edge for an adverse health effect.
CURWOOD: When you say adverse health effect, what are you talking about? What does dioxin do to us?
GIBBS: The EPA has said that dioxin is one of the most toxic chemicals that affect the US population, and is a human cancer causing chemical. But more importantly, it also affects the immune system, and the reproductive system. So if you don't have an immune system, the cancer cells that are normally killed by your regular immune system are bypassed, because the immune system is not geared up to take care of it. And as a result, the cancer cells are allowed to move. And our reproductive, system especially the men, they have discovered that the men today have 50% less sperm count than their daddies, and that's a direct result of dioxin working as a hormone. And one of the things a hormone does is it feminizes men. It changes their hormone balance. It reduces their sperm count. It creates reduced testes size, reduced penis size, reduced sex drive. So it's not just about women and breast cancer and uterine cancer and our children, but it's really about fertility.
CURWOOD: Okay. So what can people do to reduce their exposure to dioxin, as individuals as well as in communities?
GIBBS: Well, as individuals one of the things that they can do, dioxin stays in the fat. So if you were to drink skim milk as opposed to whole milk, if you were to cut the fat off your meat before preparing it, all those things are healthful. The less fat in your diet, the less dioxin in your diet. It doesn't eliminate it all, but those are some little steps. But the more important thing that we need to do is really work in our communities. We need to find out where are the medical wastes, the solid wastes, and the hazardous waste incinerators in our neighborhoods and begin to figure out how can we stop them from producing dioxin. What else can we do with those waste streams? What other processes are out there to take care of our wastes so that we're not putting this in the air even in small amounts?
CURWOOD: Now, what's being done to reduce dioxin levels today? What progress do you feel is being made?
GIBBS: There's actually a small amount of progress. Many of the incinerators, especially the old ones that burned household trash in Columbus, Ohio, a couple in Illinois and Florida have been closed down. They've been closed down because they've been found to contaminate the neighborhoods so badly. And as a result of those being closed down, there's been a significant reduction in dioxin in those communities. But also, the solid wastes that they once burned, the household trash, is now being recycled and reused, so it's not going up in smoke and is actually being put back into society in a productive sort of way. So that's one of the things that is happening over there. Across the country people are working on medical waste incinerators to the same degree and trying to work with administrators to get the plastic out of the waste stream, and to shut down the incinerator if it's really, really, really old. And finally, there's a lot of work being done with the paper and pulp industry, who also contributes to dioxin. They contribute through bleaching paper with chlorine, and the paper and pulp industry is now looking at changing their process from chlorine bleaching to hydrogen peroxide and other methods which are totally closed loop. So the American public can have their white paper, we can still maintain our jobs, an we can have some balance in the whole picture. And we can protect human health and our environment at the same time.
CURWOOD: Well thank you for taking this time with us.
GIBBS: Thank you for having me.
CURWOOD: Lois Gibbs is head of the Citizens' Clearing House for Hazardous Waste in Falls Church, Virginia.
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