Just Saying "No" to Dioxin and "Yes" to Health Care Without
Dr. Paul Connett
Co-Editor, Waste Not
Saturday, March 27, 1999
Well, they selected this time for me because they didn't
want you to vomit on an empty stomach. But seriously, we are going
to look at some success stories. The first success story I
have to share with you is the stopping of the building of new
incinerators in the United States and Canada. When they started in
the late '70s this was thought to be a multi-billion dollar
industry. Since 1985, we've been able to stop over 300 trash
incinerators being built in the United States, many more in Canada.
They haven't built one in the United States for several years now
and they're not likely to build another one there. One of the most
exciting moments in our campaign was when we heard that Ontario had
passed this complete ban on new incineration.
The people of Ontario need solutions, not illusions. And
great acknowledgement to Ruth Grier... she's terrific... fantastic.
And even though the wretched new government of yours has lifted that
ban, that ban had so much momentum you still have not been able to
build incinerators in Ontario even with the ban off, even though
they're trying very hard right now to build one in Peterborough.
The second success story I think is getting
dioxin on the public agenda. And I was very moved hearing the fellow
from the trade union this morning... it rang some bells. Because one
of the turning points in getting dioxin on the public agenda was the
organizing of a citizen's conference on dioxin on the doorstep of
the 11th International Symposium on Dioxin in North Carolina.
We got the local citizen activists to organize this conference, same
time as this big international conference, and we got the better
scientists to come along from that conference and talk directly to
But it was more than that. We had the Vietnam vets who'd
been screwed for years by the US government on the Agent Orange
issue, we had them there. And we had other victims there. And one of
the most meaningful experiences, a moving experience, was to see
scientists cry when they heard the victims describe what they'd been
through. We need more scientists to cry.
And then the other success story, or a third one, is the
way that citizens and particularly victims like yourselves many of
you, educate themselves on these issues, on the toxics issue, and
then share that information with others, sharing it with meetings
like this, with newsletters, with email and so on and that
snowballing of that information is what eventually educates the
media, academia and the government. As the bumper sticker says,
"When the people lead, eventually the leaders will follow."
And a very good example of such a network which I'll go
into more a little bit later is this thing called Health Care Without Harm in the
United States. Health Care Without Harm, although it's all
over the world now, is bringing together the environmental activist
community with the medical community in cleaning up hospitals.
Because hospitals are a major source of dioxins and mercury going
into our environment. More about that later.
Now I have two laws on pollution. The first is
the bad law. The bad law of pollution is - The level of
pollution increases directly, community by community, state by
state, with the level of corruption. The more corrupt your state,
the more polluted your state would be or your town.
That's the bad law. The good law says: The level
of pollution decreases systematically as the level of public
participation increases. The more we are involved the less polluted
and the less threatened we are by these authorities. To put it
another way, polite people get poisoned; angry people get
organized. And that's what this is all about, this conference.
It's to take that anger and make it work for you. Instead of making
you depressed, making you agitated. There's nothing wrong with
anger. There's a hell of a lot wrong with cynicism. But there's
nothing wrong with anger. It's very healthy.
Basically, we're fighting five things:
- Greed. Oh boy, there's a lot of greed here. We've heard
all about that from Sam
- Corruption. Yes, we've probably always fought that.
- Incompetence. And the trouble with incompetence and
corruption is that from a distance you can't tell which is which
it is. They both look the same. Are they stupid or are they
crooks? You can't tell.
- But I think our biggest problem is indifference. That's
our target. That's where we come in. It's indifference we have to
fight. What was the title of that book? 'Who Cares'. Right. The
victims care. And we the victims identify with the victims. We
have to make others care, one way or the other.
- And then what we're up against, arrogance. Oh yes!
Arrogance I define as ignorance backed up with overconfidence.
Now, if we lose this battle, sometime at the end of the
twenty-first century our descendants are going to come across this
monolithic thing, like something from Space Odyssey 2001, this
building without windows and doors; it'll probably be made out of
vitrified fly ash. And when we get to it, we find this official
legend written on the bottom: "They became more and more
sophisticated at answering the wrong questions."
Now why do they ask the wrong questions?
And the answer is that they use the wrong end of their
bodies, these high paid consultants, bureaucrats and others. They
are what I call back end thinkers. Now I want to illustrate this
difficult concept of back end thinking with a bathtub, ok? The back
end thinker comes home, the bathtub's overflowing so you grab a cup
and try to empty it. That's not fast enough so you get a bucket.
That's not fast enough so you get a foot pump. That's not fast
enough then you get an electric pump... power... a nuclear power
station. All in an effort to empty that bathtub before it damages
the floor. At this point, the man's wife, it usually is a man, the
man's wife comes home. She switches off the tap. She is a front end
thinker. And that's what this conference is all about. It's
And Einstein said it before Greenpeace. He said a clever
person solves a problem. (You know, with all those chemotherapy
treatments, and this, that and the other. That's all that stuff.
Right.) A wise person avoids it. A clever person solves a problem; a
wise person avoids it. And we have a big problem there with the
educational system because we still haven't learnt how to produce
wise people. We are very good are producing clever people to make
more machines, more gadgets, more technology but not very wise
One of the most potentially dangerous inventions is,
that we've come up with is a group of experts that all share the
same value system. Because there's nobody to challenge that value.
That is why you must always have a citizen, particularly a native
American to ask the kind of questions that they can't possibly think
of. The value system that they have looks something like that. I
don't know if you recognize the planet in the middle of that
hamburger but that's what they do. These people belong to the
McDonaldization of society which wants to consume the planet as fast
as possible and us in the process. We are living as if we had
another planet to go to. In fact, our former president of the United
States thought we could get to Mars and the former vice president
was already on it. We are allowing multinational corporations to
define what progress is. And saw the disaster and we're talking
about the St. Lawrence Seaway. That was their notion of progress,
multinational corporations. It wasn't the Mohawks' definition of
The bottom line is - and this comes from the waste
business - we can not run a throwaway society on a finite planet.
Landfills bury the evidence. Incinerators burn the evidence. We have
to face the problem. And, of course, as everybody's discussing, the
problem is to reach a sustainable society. Move in the right
direction. As Ross Hume Hall was talking about yesterday, we
responded as a planet very well to one threat of chlorine, namely
the CFCs destroying the ozone layer and the threat from up above.
But we've had to struggle very hard. I noticed that John Valentine
is in the audience who was very early on warning about
organochlorines. But we have to struggle to indicate that this
equally devastating threat from within from organochlorines, PCBs,
dioxins and germs building up in the environment, in our foods, in
our human tissues and in our breast milk. And although the emphasis
has been on breast milk, even before we get to the breast milk stage
the baby has been bathed with these things in the womb. The message
- We want dioxin out of our babies.
- We want dioxin out of our food... and I was on the train
coming and I thought, what else do we want? We might as well start
by making a list. We might not get 'em but we can make a list.
- We want dioxin out of mother's milk.
- We want PVC out of our shops because that's the major culprit
in terms of generating dioxin. Not only in municipal waste
incinerats, medical waste incinerats, and backyard burn barrels.
- We need chlorine out of the chemical industry. And by the way
that sounds pretty radical. But to me it's not more radical than
telling a woman to limit her breast feeding. This is small
potatoes compared to that fundamental change.
- Fluoride out of our drinking water. And this is the most
stupid bit of public policy that the Neanderthals that ran our...
I mean this comes from the age where we spread DDT on kids at
picnics, you know... Actually, we've got a few newsletters on the
front on the fluoride here if you're interested.
- Mercury out of our mouths. You know, I heard the other day,
where does the word 'quack' come from? Quack. Well, I understand
that it comes from the German 'quicksilver' which in Germany is
'quacksilver'. And it comes from the 1830s where you had two
groups of dentists. One group of dentists said gold and silver for
fillings. And the other group of dentists said no, we've got this
wonderful thing called dental amalgam which contains mercury. And
the one set of dentists who didn't want that, called the others
quacks, because of this quacksilver. Now you might check that
'cause I haven't checked it yet but it's a good story so we might
as well share it. But out of that debate in the 1830s, the group
of dentists who believed in dental amalgam formed the American
dental association. So this organization has been a lobby group
for mercury amalgams for 160 years. And as stupid as that is, you
shouldn't be surprised that they're also the lobby for fluoride in
our drinking water.
- We want pesticides out of our homes, lawns and food.
- We want genetic engineering out of agriculture. I've just come
back from England. This is top of the news in England. It is
number one news item. Sainsburys is not going to use genetically
engineered food, Marks and Spencers, major chain stores,
government is requiring identification of genetically modified
foods right the way down to the hamburger stand on the street
corner. They have to tell you whether it's got genetically
monitored things. Contrast that with the United States where it's
zero, practically zero happening on that, that's visible to the
general public at least.
- We need corporate money out of government. Oh my God! How do
you do that?
- We want cowardice out of academia. I'm not really sure that
cowardice is the right word. Silence? Indifference? But the fact
that our brightest minds are tied up in universities, totally
self-serving, worshipping this academic model where you spend
hours and hours and hours on minutiae. How many hairs are there on
spider's leg number 7 in spider number 6983 in the Amazon? And if
you ask them about leg number six and it's not their specialty ..
Now we do need specialists. But I don't feel we need specialists
at the expense of their not taking responsibility for what our
corporations and the pollution and everything else is doing to our
community. You can't have this cop out!
- We want the TV out of our living rooms at least one night a
- Incinerators out of our communities. We're in a home of a
ridiculous incinerator here in Hamilton. It's putting out several
hundred times as much dioxin as a modern incinerator would.
Essentially you've got two ways to go at this point. One is to
invest the money to get that up to modern standards. Or you shut
it down. My advice would be, don't waste the money trying to
improve it. Instead, put your money into doing what you should
have done in the first place. Source separation, reuse, repair,
recycling, reduction, composting and selective landfilling. That's
what you should've done. That's what you should do now. What the
plan is to run it for eight or nine years, expand the amount of
waste that they burn, to bring it in from other jurisdictions
including the United States. This is an utter scandal! It should
be closed as soon as possible. And how do you get that? You just
say to the politicians are you for this incinerator? Yes? No hard
feelings. I'm going to do everything in my power to make sure that
you are never re-elected in this community. And whilst we are
talking about that, get the burn barrels out of every backyard
because unfortunately as long as there's PVC and other chlorinated
products in the waste stream. We're producing enormous amounts of
dioxin from these burn barrels. That should be shut down. Again,
if you see anybody burning anything in their backyard, try to stop
Okay, just a few words about dioxin. First of all about
the chemistry. I only put this... it's not necessary... I only put
it in because people are so satisfied in a few minutes time they'll
understand some chemistry and the first time in their lives they
didn't hate it. And it's a sense of empowerment. The only thing you
need to know really to understand dioxin is essentially a thing
called benzene, which is six carbons in a hexagon. If you join two
of those together you get a substance called biphenyl. You could
have called it bicycle but somebody already used that. Then if you
substitute chlorine for those hydrogens around that ring which we
can do easily then we get a family of compounds called poly, meaning
several, chloro, meaning we put chlorine into that ring, biphenyls,
PCBs for short. 209 of those PBCs because there's 209 ways of
putting the chlorine around those rings. When you burn PCBs the
products are even more toxic than you started. You get this second
family of compounds called polychlorinated dibenzo furans?? All
that's happened here is you put an oxygen across that gap and again
you put the chlorines around. Here's 135 furans or PCDFs. If you put
two oxygens between those rings you get another family of compounds
called dioxins. And there's 75 of those. All 210 dioxins and furans
are produced when you burn trash or anything which contains
chlorine. So here's the revision. Benzene, biphenyl, PBCs, furans,
dioxin. You can do it with your hands.
There's 210 of these. Seventeen are very toxic. Super
toxic. And those are the ones who have chlorine at the positions
which we number two, three, seven, eight, all the family members
which have chlorine at the two, three, seven, eight positions. The
worst of all is the one that has just four chlorines, 2,3,7,8 TCDD.
That's the dioxin of Agent Orange. Etc., etc., etc.
Now, how does it work. Dioxin, being fat soluble,
crosses the membrane, attaches itself to a protein called the AH
receptor. And there's two remarkable things about this receptor.
First of all, after over twenty years of research we still don't
know what that substance is supposed to be doing. What is that
protein supposed to be binding to? All we know is that dioxin avidly
attaches itself to that and then that subsequent things happen. But
we don't know what the natural substance is that should be binding
The second thing which is even more remarkable, this
protein appears in evolution at the same time as bones appear in
fish. Every species above boneless fish has this protein in it.
Which means that the fact that it survived all the millions of years
and twists and turns of evolution says that this has vital
importance. We don't know what its function is but it's a vitally
important function. Dioxin co-opts it, attaches to it, then it
attaches to another protein which is actually the antiprotein. And
the antiprotein is also involved in the estrogen receptor. So this
is what happens... and the highest doses go to our babies.
The most important paper that's been written on dioxin
to date in my view is also the shortest. This was eight Dutch
scientists sent this letter in to the Lancet at May the 23rd, 1992.
Basically, what they did was to look at thyroid metabolism of 38
babies. They divided them up into two groups based upon whether or
not mothers has high or low dioxin levels in their breast milk,
giving an indicator of exposure in the womb. And at one week of age,
there was a significant difference between the thyroid hormone
levels in the baby between the high level and the low level. Now
these differences are within the range of the normal population.
However, the problem here is when you poison the whole population
it's not the subtle shift you see in the average person, it's what
you do to the tails. I mean this kind of thing could double the
number of people that have an impaired immune system, for example.
Double it. And halve the ones who are super resistant.
If you look at levels of dioxin in mothers breast milk,
you see low levels in the southern hemisphere, very, very high
levels in Europe and we're somewhere in the middle. Canada and the
United States in the middle here at 16, 18 parts per trillion. But I
think these high levels in Europe, this goes back to '89, some of
them have come down. I think that's because they run their traffic,
their industry and their incinerators very close to where they grow
their food. More about that in a minute.
Incineration. Oh my goodness. What a dumb thing
to do. To take every single material that you consume in society,
convert it into tiny little pieces and then blow them out of a spout
and let them settle out in our lungs, in our food and so on. And of
course we do bring on the back end thinking of air pollution control
In 1987 is when they first discovered dioxin coming out
of incinerators. In 1985 was when they first found that dioxins were
actually formed in the air pollution control devices. The engineers
told us they could solve the dioxin problem simply by burning it at
higher temperatures. We now know that the dioxin is actually created
in the air pollution control devices if it goes hot.
Now, here's an extraordinary figure. They found that
Columbus, Ohio was putting out 984 grams of dioxin a year. That's
more than the whole of Germany. All their traffic, all their
industry, all their incinerators. Meanwhile the EPA was telling
experts in Vienna that all their incinerators combined were putting
out 60 to 200 grams. So one incinerator is putting out five times
more than their highest estimate. It's also the equivalent of about
a half a Seveso accident. So that's equivalent to about, running for
ten years, five Seveso accidents.
What did the Ohio EPA do about this? They did a risk
assessment and came back and said the Ohio EPA study finds no
substantial threat caused by dioxin emissions. But they only looked
at inhalation!? Ohhh... he looked at inhalation... more about that
in a minute.
Then the Department of Health and this is the department
of Health, not the department of Monty Python. They came out with a
fact sheet. You know how citizens become upset with 1000 grams of
acid coming down on their heads? "Don't get so emotional about this,
darling". So, come out with a fact sheet. Get the facts out. So the
first thing they did was get the structures of dioxins and furans
wrong... OK, we all make mistakes. Then they would try and tell
their ignorant public how small a part per trillion is. One part per
trillion is taking a one second vacation after working 31,700 years.
Wouldn't you want a one second vacation after working 31 years? It
gets worse... it gets worse. So then what they did was they
converted the maximum emission rate into parts per trillion, 1341.9
parts per trillion. Let's see what they say. One part per trillion
is equivalent to, hey you, a one second vacation after working
31,700 years. The maximum emission is equal to 1342 seconds or 42.4
minutes vacation taken. That's if a person works all year! If a
person worked a forty hour week, it would take 173,567 years to earn
23-4 minutes vacation!! Department of Health! Trying to trivialize
the fact that this community is getting 984 grams of dioxin a year
on their heads.
I could go on. I could go on to how they retested that
plant. "We lost our north-end trash that week. Remember the tests
are very important and it's our future. We must have a good source
of trash for the test." Umm... Then they got a consultant... who's
since achieved great fame because he's proved that there's no
relationship between dioxin coming out of an incinerator and
chlorine going in. But he did this calculation in which he estimated
that "all the municipal trash incinerators in the United States are
putting out just 2.6 percent" of this total of 33,000 grams. But if
you work out 2.6 percent of 33,000 grams, it's 850 grams per year
which is less than the incinerator that he was investigating, which
was 984 grams a year. That's a peculiar kind of mathematics.
Going back to food chains. One quart of milk, this is
our first paper, one quart of milk is equivalent to breathing the
air next to the cow for eight months. More recent figures. A cow in
one day puts as much dioxin into its body as you would put into
yours in fourteen years of breathing. So it's what you eat. And the
EPA came out and admitted that in September of '94. This is were we
get our dioxin from: beef, dairy, milk, chicken, pork, fish, eggs.
Very little from breathing.
And so what you really what to know in Hamilton is how
much of that dioxin, that 4 grams a year, from that stack gets into
your food chain. I don't think anyone's done that calculation.
In country after country, in the '90s, it was shown that
the major source of dioxin coming out, the source of dioxin was farm
municipal waste incineration. I put the percentages here. In
Germany, 47 percent, UK, 30 percent, Netherlands, 79 percent,
Switzerland, 75 percent, United States, 33 percent. But the thing
which sent shock waves in the United States was medical waste
incineration at 5000 grams as opposed to 3000 grams per municipal
waste incineration. And that sent shock waves through the community,
particularly activists. And what it produced ultimately was the
campaign Health Care Without Harm. Here is the website: http://www.noharm.org/. Please
contact them. This is the most incredible group. As I say, nurses,
doctors, public officials, citizens, activists, Greenpeace, you name
it. And they are making great strides. Not only in making,
communicating how obsolescent incineration is. A much better
technology for destroying the infectious waste, which don't create
the dioxin or heavy metal problem. But they're also getting right to
the front end and persuading to get PVC out of the hospitals. And
you may have seen the publicity around the IV bags.
Back to the big picture. Steps towards a sustainable
- We need to shift from back end solutions to front end
solutions whether we're talking about medicine, crime or waste.
- We need to replace short term economic plans with long term
- We need to shift the focus from standard of living to quality
- We need to shift from being clever to being wise.
- We need to shift from arrogant technologies to elegant
solutions modeled after nature's methods. Arrogant technologies -
genetic engineering, nuclear power, use of chlorine in the
chemical industry, incineration, etc.
- We need to rediscover, revitalize, small communities, small
businesses, small farms, everything small.
- Create a superfund for workers displaced from dirty
- Protect habitats of endangered species, and indigenous people
who know more about sustainability than any other of God's
- Network environmental and social justice groups worldwide, and
- Make sure that at least fifty percent of our legislators are
All truth goes through three phases. First it is
ridiculed. Second, it is violently attacked. And third, it is
accepted as being self-evident.
And finally, three messages:
- To citizens: Don't let the experts take your common
sense away. They will if they can.
- To political leaders: Put your faith back in people.
Stop trying to solve all your problems with high paid consultants
and magic machines.
- And to activists, the most important message of all is
to have fun. And don't go into this battle unless you're going to
enjoy it. Find a way of enjoying this. Celebrate often. Celebrate
everything that you possibly can. Party whenever you can. And
remember in this networking thing that we have here, we have the
most precious, the most precious aspect of life on this planet
that we know. And that is human beings talking to one another,
liking one another, enjoying one another. And what Sandra
Steingraber said this morning was absolutely on target when she
talked about what the parent goes through when they first have
their baby. I just took me right back to when I was waiting for my
first baby to be born. Absolutely I'm sure and if you ask most
people in this room why they are giving up this weekend, the
answer will come back probably for my children and for my
grandchildren. This is the celebration of those feelings. And it's
more powerful than all the greed and all the corruption and all
the other things that the other side have. We are more powerful.
We are the little mushroom that blasts through
Thank you very much.