Dioxin clouding the press?

Bombshell: the EPA’s new study on dioxin, an organochlorine suspected of contributing to the explosion in cancer rates. Our May/June cover story investigated environmental poisons like dioxin and their links to the breast cancer epidemic.

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In 1991, the chemical and paper industries–aided by the New York Times–persuaded the Environmental Protection Agency that dioxin had gotten a bum rap. The EPA agreed to a new study. Its reassessment, slated for release after numerous delays, concludes that dioxin is even worse than previously thought. Yet Times environmental reporter Keith Schneider, who once wrote that dioxin is “considered no more risky than spending a week sunbathing” (and later admitted to making it up), is still understating its dangers.

Over the years, Schneider’s dioxin stories in the “paper-of-record” helped legitimate a backlash in the press against environmentalists. Last May, when Schneider was leaked a draft of the EPA reassessment, his front-page story properly focused on dioxin’s harm to humans’ reproductive and immune systems, but downplayed its carcinogenic qualities–possibly as a way of “saving face” for his previous reporting, says Rick Hind of Greenpeace.

The study concludes that “dioxin and related compounds likely present a cancer hazard to humans”; existing levels of exposure may cause cancer in up to one of every 1,000 people. But, incredibly, Schneider wrote that “dioxin may shed part of its deadly reputation” as a result of the EPA report, and emphasized new studies that human dioxin contamination has declined. Activists admit Schneider has finally come round to some of the facts, but fault him for continuing to accept the industry line without much criticism. The nation, insists Greenpeace researcher Joe Thornton, faces a “public health emergency” that requires phasing out chlorine-based chemicals.

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