A Small Town's Battle With Dioxin Pollution

A small town grapples with the legacy of a chemical byproduct.

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See photos of Nitro, W. Va.

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As hard as it is to clean up soil, at least there's a chance. With people, there's no such possibility. In 1991, Woodall retired after 30 years of service, and Monsanto gave him a plaque with a photo of the site in a wooden frame. After the herbicide job, he had worked at the site as an insulator and machinist. The workers were a family.

About a year after he retired, Woodall developed colon cancer. Maybe dioxin had something to do with it; maybe it didn't. But thousands of Nitro residents or former residents are part of a class action lawsuit that alleges the company polluted the town with dioxin. Woodall, having worked at the plant and lived in Nitro, is a class member of the suit. Another 161 lawsuits from residents claim dioxin has caused their cancers. Monsanto says the cases lack merit. "We will defend ourselves vigorously," says spokesman Bob Pierce.

Elevated risk. When Woodall started at the plant, it's fair to say not much was known about dioxin's long-term effects. Yes, it burned the skin and smelled foul. But the United States didn't formally start studying it until 1962, and it wasn't really until after the 1970s, after Vietnam and a major chemical accident near the town of Seveso, Italy, that data started to come out.

In the 1976 accident in Seveso, a plant released dioxin. Since then, researchers have studied residents of the area and found elevated risks of certain cancers and spikes in infertility accompanying increased exposure to dioxin. But there and elsewhere, controversy has dogged the science. The EPA has worked for the better part of two decades to issue a comprehensive report on the health hazards posed by the chemical. It has been delayed by squabbles between agencies and by concerns among some scientists that the risks were overstated.

Lisa Jackson, the EPA administrator, could kick the can down the road, but she said in an interview last year that tackling dioxin is one of her priorities. Since then, the EPA has completed a draft of that long-delayed report; it's currently being peer-reviewed, and the agency hopes to release a final draft this year. By itself, it won't prompt any new rules. But it will give the clearest look yet at what dioxin does to the body. "The real evolution in the science is that we have a deeper under­stand­ing not only that it is toxic but of how it gets into the body and how it accumulates in the body," says Paul Anastas, head of the EPA's Office of Research and Development. Meanwhile, in January, the EPA proposed a rule that would greatly reduce the level of dioxin allowed in soil near homes.

As the EPA's experience shows, it's not easy to deal with chemicals after they're released. In Nitro, it's even more complicated. The fact that Nitro exists at all is because of chemicals. The town was essentially built from scratch in 1918 to make ammunition for World War I. The name Nitro comes from nitro­cellulose, a chemical. The ­military designed the town to accommodate 18,000 workers. After the war, some of the factories switched to producing rubber, and in the 1940s Monsanto bought a site to make agricultural chemicals. For decades, the plant gave people jobs and salaries. For workers like Woodall, it's hard to hate something like that.

But the former workers aren't the only ones affected. In Nitro, townspeople know not to eat fish from the local waters. They've received letters from health authorities warning them of the risks. That's something scientists have tracked for a while. "For most people, more than 90 percent of the daily intake of dioxin and dioxinlike compounds comes from food, primarily meat, dairy products, and fish," says Tom Sinks, deputy director of the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

Several years ago, a local law firm, the Calwell Practice, started conducting dioxin tests inside people's homes. Samples also were taken from public schools and a community center. The firm says elevated levels of dioxin were found. Several government agencies reviewed the results and concluded that the dioxin levels "do not pose a health problem."