Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Dioxin and Willamette River Pollution: A First Step Into the Toxic Waters

This post provides some preliminary research and analysis on dioxin pollution in the Willamette Watershed connected to pulp and paper mill effluents.

I was recently at an environmental history conference and found myself in a discussion with someone doing research on dioxin pollution from pulp and paper mill effluents. As we were sharing stories, I realized that I had not seen a single reference to the word "dioxin" in any of the government reports, newspaper articles, professional journals, letters, or other primary sources from the 1900s into the 1960s that I have consulted thus far. Over the past few weeks, I've searched various primary and secondary sources, with the goal of determining just when dioxins became a known toxin, and when they were linked empirically with pulp and paper mill effluents, to determine if I had inadvertently missed something very important (and would have to re-write my thesis), or if this type of pollution hadn't been discovered until after the 1960s (and I was OK).

Here is what I have found thus far . . .

It was not until the mid-1980s that scientific evidence definitively linked dioxin contamination directly to effluents from pulp and paper mills that used chlorine in their production processes—so, I didn't miss at least this important topic in my thesis (Whewww!!!).

Before dioxins were known to be present in chlorinated pulp and paper mills wastes, specialists were aware of the human-centered acute effects of these toxins. Dioxins had been identified in the 1950s as a cause of “chloracne” that effected people who produced or worked with herbicides and certain kinds of industrial solvents.

Chloracne is a broad term for a kind of dermatitis caused by chlorinated hydrocarbons. Before chloracne was associated with dioxins in the 1950s, specialists noticed the condition at least as early as the late nineteenth century.[1] Specialists during World War II found this condition associated with the use of cutting oils and solvents; similar to chloracne was the “cable rash” or “Halowax dermatitis” found in World War II shipyard workers. Specialists also noted an increase in the occurrence of this condition in shipyard workers during World War I, and that “This type of dermatitis is seen also in those engaged in the manufacture of the chlorinated naphthalenes and diphenyls, as well as in men in other occupations in which these substances are employed.”[2]

In 1970, the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) stopped using the herbicide “Agent Orange” in Vietnam. Agent Orange was a mixture of the chemicals 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T, the latter of which, in particular, contained the highly toxic dioxin 2,3,7,8-TCDD. In spite of the DoD's ban, manufacturer Dow Chemical successfully lobbied against a federal ban of this herbicide in the U.S. until the 1980s.[3]

The first use of the word "dioxin" in the Oregonian was in July 1971, in connection to the DoD’s Agent Orange ban. The New York Times’ first mention of this word was during the previous year, also in this context.[4]

In spite of the DoD’s ban on Agent Orange use in Vietnam, the U.S. Forest Service used herbicides containing 2,4,5-T in the Siuslaw National Forest from the 1960s into the 1980s. In 1977, the Oregonian reported that Harvard biologists had found dioxin in the breast milk of a woman from the Five Rivers area near Waldport.[5] This discovery, and previous concerns from Oregon residents about the herbicide, led to the formation of a citizen’s group seeking the cessation of herbicide spraying in the Siuslaw National Forest. A group of university and industrial scientists also reacted to these findings by questioning the accuracy of the study at a conference in Mississippi hosted by the EPA’s Dioxin Monitoring Committee. This committee met to determine what the next phases of environmental sampling would be.[6]

The Oregonian’s first mention of dioxin found in the state as a result of environmental sampling was from February 1987. This reference is in a report that a federal magistrate in Eugene ordered the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), within 30 days, to “release a document detailing levels of dioxin around the country—including those detected in Willamette River fish—or to state why it should legally be able to withhold release of the document." The judge rendered this decision in response to a motion that Carol Van Strum had filed. Van Strum claimed that information she received from an EPA scientist “reports that tissue samples taken from Willamette River fish show dioxin levels more than four times as high as levels detected in fish taken from the Great Lakes area."[7]

The judge in Eugene was referring to a 1985 EPA study that had found “low levels” of dioxin at three Oregon locations. The EPA asserted that this information “does not constitute an environmental emergency.” An EPA spokesperson stated that the agency “had notified Oregon that dioxin had been found in 1985 in fish from the Willamette River in Portland, soil from rural Linn County, and creek sediments from a forest east of Salem.” Dioxin found was most toxic form, 2,3,7,8-TCDD. The highest concentration of this toxin from all three sites was 4.5 parts per trillion in two fish caught near the Southern Pacific Railroad bridge in Portland Harbor, upstream from St. Johns Bridge.[8]

(It's interesting to note that this stretch of the river is within and adjacent to the current Portland Harbor Superfund site. Historically, within this stretch of the river were a number of heavy industries that processed and/or used petrochemicals. It's not unreasonable to assume that these industries are at least as likely as the pulp and paper industry to be responsible for the 2,3,7,8-TCDD contamination found in this stretch of the river in 1985.)

The Oregonian's first mention of dioxin related directly to the pulp and paper industry was from correspondent Carmel Finley in September 1987. Finley reported on EPA rule changes prompted by discovery of dioxin in fish downstream of the James River mill at Wauna, Oregon, about seventy-five miles west of Portland on the Columbia River, and at four other U.S. mills. The EPA announced it was commencing a study of ninety mills nationwide. Finely wrote that among the mills to be studied would be three Oregon mills that used the Kraft chemical bleaching process, including the Pope & Talbot mill on the Willamette River near Halsey and the Boise Cascade mill in St. Helens.[9]

The kraft process cooks wood pulp in a solution of sodium hydroxide and sodium sulfide. The kraft process is more efficient than the other widely-used method, the sulfite process—at least in terms of the way that the chemicals in the kraft process can be re-used.[10] However, bleached kraft effluents produced “’substantially higher levels’ of dioxin,” and the discovery of dioxins in these wastes “’was a new area of concern,’” as Finley quoted the chief of the EPA’s Water Quality Analysis Branch Alexander McBride.[11]

In spite of the fact that TCDD specifically, and dioxins generally, are the most carcinogenic substances that humans had yet created, Walt Sinclair, manager of the Pope & Talbot mill, downplayed the potential for contamination, stating:
    ”’The very minute amount they’re finding almost defies science to detect it,’ . . . Nevertheless, he added, ‘I don’t think our society will stand to have any of this stuff in its water.’”[12]

Finley’s Oregonian article also referred to Van Strum and Merrell’s report, No Margin of Safety, that Greenpeace had published just a few weeks previously. No Margin of Safety featured records that Van Strum and Merrell had received from an anonymous EPA scientist. These records suggested that the there had been a high-level agreement between EPA and pulp and paper industry executives to withhold from the public information linking dioxin contamination with the industry.[13]

The New York Times also carried its first mention of dioxins related directly to pulp and paper effluents when it reported on the EPA study in September 1987. Correspondent Philip Shabecoff wrote that the EPA had found traces of dioxin in many paper products:
    “The Environmental Protection Agency disclosed today that a Congressionally mandated study of dioxin contamination across the country had found less contamination than officials expected in land and water. But data on water pollution from paper mills, gathered in the course of this broader study, led industry and Government researchers to focus on the possibility of paper contamination.”[14]

As Kathryn Harrison describes, the EPA’s “disclosure that dioxins had been detected in the effluent of pulp mills prompted governments throughout the world to revise their regulatory standards for the pulp and paper industry.”[15]

[1] For more on this, see Carol Van Strum and Paul Merrell, No Margin of Safety: A Preliminary Report on Dioxin Pollution and the Need for Emergency Action in the Pulp and Paper Industry (Greenpeace USA, 1987), III-1-III-18, and the sources cited in this work.

[2] See, for example, Samuel M. Peck, “Dermatitis from Cutting Oils, Solvents, and Dialectrics, Including Chloracne,” Journal of the American Medical Association 125:3 (1944), 190-196; George E. Morris and Irving R. Tabershaw, “'Cable Rash'—A Note on a New Cleansing Mixture,” Journal of the American Medical Association 121:3 (1943), 192-193; and Alice Hamilton, “The Toxicity of the Chlorinated Hydrocarbons,” Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine 15:6 (July 1943). 787-801.

[3] For more on this, see Carol Van Strum and Paul Merrell, No Margin of Safety: A Preliminary Report on Dioxin Pollution and the Need for Emergency Action in the Pulp and Paper Industry (Greenpeace USA, 1987), III-1-III-18.

[4] Victor Cohn, “Federal Report Blasted: Use of Herbicide Called Threat,” Oregonian, July 16, 1971, p. 5; Jerry M. Flint, “Dow Aides Deny Herbicides Risk,” New York Times, Mar. 18, 1970, p. 96; Les Ledbetter, “Science: A Weed Killer Banned in U.S. and Vietnam,” New York Times, April 19, 1970, p. 176.

[5] “Nursing Mother’s Milk Found to Contain Dioxin,” Oregonian, Feb. 18, 1977, p. D16.

[6] “Scientists Score Testing for Dioxin,” Oregonian, March 6, 1977, p. B8. This and related discoveries centered on the human health impacts of herbicide spraying, and is covered more fully in Carol Van Strum, A Bitter Fog: Herbicides and Human Rights (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1983), and in William G. Robbins, Landscapes of Conflict: The Oregon Story, 1940-2000 (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2004), pp. 194-205.

[7] Dana Tims, “EPA Reply Ordered on Study of Dioxin,” Oregonian, Feb. 4, 1987 p. B3.

[8] Victor Cohn, “Federal Report Blasted: Use of Herbicide Called Threat,” Oregonian, July 16, 1971, p. 5.

[9] Carmel Finley, “Dioxin in Mill Emissions Will Prompt New EPA Rules,” Oregonian, Sep. 6, 1987, p. B6.

[10] "The Basics,", Reach for Unbleached Foundation, n.d., accessed May 18, 2011.

[11] Finley, “Dioxin in Mill Emissions."

[12] Finley, “Dioxin in Mill Emissions."

[13] Carol Van Strum and Paul Merrell, No Margin of Safety: A Preliminary Report on Dioxin Pollution and the Need for Emergency Action in the Pulp and Paper Industry (Greenpeace USA, 1987).

[14] Philip Shabecoff, “Traces of Dioxin Found in Range of Paper Goods,” New York Times, Sep. 24, 1987, pp. A1, A22.

[15] Kathryn Harrison, “The Regulator’s Dilemma: Regulation of Pulp Mill Effluents in the Canadian Federal State.” Canadian Journal of Political Science 29:3 (Sep. 1996), 469-496.



  1. As a supplement to the above, the reader might notice one aspect of my method here: I often rely on a series of news articles to provide a basic chronology of events from which I can build. I understand well that all sources have their biases, strengths/weaknesses, and best uses, and that no one source can be used to answer every historical question.

    Once I've established a basic chronology with news reports, I consult with other sources to help refine and fill-in the basic chronology. In the case above, these other sources include secondary sources (published books and articles), and other primary sources (other news accounts, contemporary professional/technical journal articles).

    The post above was my initial foray into trying to determine a basic chronology of the empirical identification of dioxin with pulp and paper mill effluents. This will help me understand the later period in my book project (1970s forward). It will also help me respond when people ask me "why don't you talk about dioxins in mill effluents in the 1920s and 1930s?" I will now be able to reply, "Well, dioxins weren't definitively identified with mill effluents until the mid-1980s . . ."

    One of the most fascinating finds in this research was when I ran a simple search on the word "dioxin" in the Oregonian and NYT, looking for the first-ever mention of this word in these newspapers. As I reported in the post, it wasn't until 1971 in the former and 1970 in the latter, and these reports were in connection to the DoD's Agent Orange decision.

    I have an open question about the cover-up narrative that Van Strum and Merrell write about in their report No Margin of Safety. I recognizes that they wanted to make this information public as soon as possible, but I find it interesting that this report was not later expanded into a book; does this mean that the cover-up narrative didn't hold water, and, therefore, there wasn't a book project to be had? In my searches using Google, Google Scholar, and databases available through the PSU Library, I have not yet come across any scholarly historical work on the discovery of dioxin in pulp and paper mill effluents -- except Harrison's article that I cited briefly, and this article is more about the regulation of dioxin in these effluents, not about collusion between the U.S. gov't and industry.

    If anyone reading this happens is able to recommend any additional sources I should consult, I'm keen to hear from you!

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Hi Jason,

    I see that you have removed your post asking me to expand upon the assertion above that the EPA and pulp industry executives had colluded to withhold from the public information about dioxins.

    My reply would be to consult Carol Van Strum and Paul Merrell, No Margin of Safety: A Preliminary Report on Dioxin Pollution and the Need for Emergency Action in the Pulp and Paper Industry (Greenpeace USA, 1987), as what I wrote above was taken directly from this source. I'm not in a position to confirm or deny Van Strum & Merrell's interpretation, but the reader will find that report useful, as the authors provide copies of the correspondence between EPA and the pulp industry.

    Best of luck in your research!