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How harmful is dioxin?

Was it all a mistake?

In the early '80s, dioxin was seen as the most deadly chemical around. An unwanted by-product of other chemicals, dioxin was thought to cause cancer, liver, kidney and bladder disorders and central nervous system diseases. It was also thought to cause miscarriage, birth defects and gynecological problems.

But then in 1991, the winds shifted.

Dr. Vernon N. Houk, the federal scientist who urged the evacuation of Times Beach, Mo., after high levels of dioxin were found there, said the government may have erred. Maybe dioxin wasn't so dangerous after all. Maybe the evacuation was unnecessary. Perhaps the whole matter needed more study.

The Environmental Protection Agency at that time opened a sweeping review of dioxin to formulate a new official position on its risks. That study has yet to be completed.

Houk, who is now with the environmental health division for the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, has said the government used the best information at the time to base its decision to evacuate Times Beach.

Marilyn Leistner, the last mayor of Times Beach, said part of the problem was that no one knew how bad it was.

"They were figuring it out while we were living it," she said.

But since that time, medical research from the late 1980s indicated exposure to dioxin was not as bad as first thought, Houck has said.

Medical studies conducted soon after the evacuation have, indeed, failed to show higher than normal incidences of liver and kidney disease, birth defects or central nervous system disorders among people from Times Beach.

But Daryl Roberts, head of environmental epideminology for the Missouri Department of Health, is not willing to dismiss the health threat. And he is certainly not ready to say dioxin is safe.

"It's too early for the cancers to show up," he said.

He added that he has seen some early evidence that exposure to dioxin may cause immune system disorders. "That's what I'm watching," he said.

Yet that may never be studied. Funding for comprehensive medical studies and tracking ended in 1986. Now his department relies on questionnaires filled out by people willing to send them back.

The government ordered the destruction of Times Beach after it was learned that a waste-hauler named Russell Bliss had sprayed dirt roads in the area a decade before with a dioxin-laced substance to keep the dust down.

The path to Bliss was something right out of a detective story.

In 1971, the owner of a horse stable that had been sprayed by Bliss noticed that horses and family pets were dying mysteriously. She followed him on his runs and made a list of the where he picked up chemicals and where he sprayed.

She turned that over to the Missouri Department of Health and the Centers for Disease of Control. It wasn't until 1974 that it was determined that the sludge contained dioxin. At the time, it was thought that dioxin would breakdown naturally.

Sites where Bliss sprayed were to have been checked two years later but they never were. It was not until 1982 when a truck driver, fired by Bliss, went to a newspaper and told of the spraying. That put pressure on the Health Department to reopen the investigation. Later that year, dioxin was discovered throughout Times Beach and in other sites in Eastern Missouri in levels 100 times greater than was considered safe.

Leistner said she worries that as times goes by, people will lose interest in the subject and medical tracking of former residents will be lost.

She said most residents have become disgusted with the back and forth of the dioxin debate.

"You get to point where you don't listen anymore," said former resident Ben Essen, "You'd drive yourself crazy if you listened to them. Yes it is. No it isn't."

Instead, they live with the fear of the unknown.

Every new bump, every lingering illness might mean something. Or it might not.

_ Jenny Deam