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On a chilly morning in March 1965, a highly unusual gathering took place at Dow Chemical Co.'s headquarters in Midland, Mich. Without any corporate fanfare, Dow scientists met with colleagues from three rival firms, Hooker Chemical, Diamond Alkali and Hercules Powder. On the agenda that day was a discussion of the effects on human health of a family of chemicals known as dioxin. The chemicals, including Agent Orange, later used by the U.S. to defoliate the jungles of Viet Nam, are an unwanted byproduct in the making of herbicides. At the time, most chemists were only vaguely aware of dioxin, or its problems. But Dow had just experienced an outbreak of dioxin poisoning among workers in Midland. It wanted to sound a private alert to prevent similar incidents at other chemical plants, including those of its competitors.
Last week this seemingly generous gesture of good will came back to haunt Dow. According to a report in the New York Times, memorandums from participants in that almost forgotten session indicate that Dow's objective may not have been corporate benevolence. Rather, the documents show, the meeting appears to have been part of an effort to keep discoveries about dioxin's perils from exploding into a public scandal, which could have brought a new outcry for governmental regulation of the chemical industry. Wrote a participant from Hercules Powder: "They [Dow] are particularly fearful of a congressional investigation and excessive restrictive legislation on the manufacture of pesticides."
The documents were unearthed during the preliminary legal maneuvering in a class-action lawsuit that has been brought on behalf of 20,000 Viet Nam veterans, their widows and children against Dow and other producers of Agent Orange Scheduled for trial on Long Island next month before U.S. District Court Judge George C. Pratt, the suit charges that the dioxin contained in Agent Orange caused cancer and other ailments among the soldiers and genetic defects in their children. Dow has resolutely denied the charges. In a television interview, Dow President Paul F. Oreffice said, "There is absolutely no evidence of dioxin doing any damage to humans, except something called chloracne. It's a rash."
Many scientists do not take the chemical so lightly. They say that even concentrations as low as 5 parts per trillion can cause birth defects, cancer and other serious illness in laboratory animals. Last week the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta reported that 112 of 130 residents tested in Imperial, Mo., near dioxin-contaminated Times Beach, showed abnormalities in blood, liver or kidney functions. Says Dr. Irving Selikoff, director of the environmental-science lab at Mount Sinai Medical Center in Manhattan: "No question about it, dioxin is harmful to humans. It is man made. As a result, the human body doesn't know how to break it down. We store it in our bodies and accumulate it."
In 1964, after 64 workers at its Midland plant developed chloracne following exposure to dioxin, Dow began a full scale investigation of its effects. When dioxin was administered to rabbits, their livers were severely damaged. As one participant in the 1965 meeting later wrote, the Dow scientists reported that "even vigorous washing of the [rabbit's] skin 15 minutes after application [of dioxin] will not prevent damage and may possibly enhance the absorption of the material."
Now, 18 years after the private parley of scientists, the Midland area is still wrestling with dioxin. It continues to show up in tainted water from Dow's Midland plant, has been found in fish in ten Michigan rivers and is the source of considerable anxiety among local residents. Says Diane Herbert, a young mother of two children: "Almost everyone seems to have thyroid problems, and there are a lot of skin tumors and allergies in pets." To assess those fears, Michigan's state health department is seeking state or federal money for a major study of dioxin's effects on residents.
Whatever the private concerns of the Dow scientists at the 1965 meeting, they did not lead to public action. As a company spokesman said last week, "We found we had a problem. We corrected it. We reported it to the appropriate authorities. We called in our competitors, urged them to adopt our practice. This was really an attempt by industry to police itself." The Viet Nam veterans' lawyer, Victor Yannacone, has a harsher view. He calls the backstage parleying nothing less than "a conspiracy of silence."