The East Palestine Train Derailment and Your Health: Kerri Arsenault on the Pervasive and Ongoing Risks of Dioxin
Kerri Arsenault in Conversation with Whitney Terrell and V.V. Ganeshananthan on Fiction/Non/Fiction
Writer Kerri Arsenault joins co-hosts V.V. Ganeshananthan and Whitney Terrell to discuss the recent derailment of a train carrying hazardous chemicals in East Palestine, Ohio. Arsenault is the author of Mill Town: Reckoning with What Remains, an investigative memoir about her hometown, Mexico, Maine, where a paper mill released dioxins into the environment for decades. Arsenault talks about the effect dioxins had on Mexico, which was nicknamed “Cancer Valley,” as well as the history of dioxin poisonings in America. She discusses how government and industry responses in East Palestine parallel the cover-up in her hometown. She also reads from the book.
Check out video excerpts from our interviews at Lit Hub’s Virtual Book Channel, Fiction/Non/Fiction’s YouTube Channel, and our website. This episode of the podcast was produced by Cheri Brisendine and Anne Kniggendorf, and edited by Hannah Karau.
From the episode:
Whitney Terrell: I wondered if you could talk a little bit about the history of dioxin poisoning in America and what makes dioxins so dangerous.
Kerri Arsenault: I’ll try to explain. It’s a generic term for a group of about 75 related chemical compounds that are produced unintentionally, so they’re always a byproduct of something. They’re never a thing that’s produced to do something. For example, the processing of bleaching paper with chlorine and dioxins also were part of what was used in Agent Orange to defoliate the jungle in Vietnam.
From 1961 to ’71-ish, they were using that. So for 10 years just spraying dioxin on the jungle. Then there was Times Beach, Missouri, which lasted for about four years; they were spraying the roads with this to keep the dust down. It was mixed with dioxin and waste oil. They just sprayed it, and that town, I think, is not livable anymore.
What’s interesting is that these are spectacle events, these are the ones that people get involved in and report on, but there’s tons of other things, places in my hometown, that are a lot more unspectacular, not newsworthy, that nobody’s reporting on. I mean, even in Maine right now, there’s a big class action suit about how paper mills and waste facility plants have been spreading sludge over farms across Maine and it contains PFAS. But what they’re not talking about is that that sludge also contains dioxin. It’s like a slow-moving horror film about the farms in Maine. They also spread them on baseball fields. So there’s these big events, but there’s also a lot of slow-moving events that aren’t getting reported on.
V.V. Ganeshananthan: I want to just go back for a second. I was going through this list. You have a couple of moments where you outline this chronology in your book. You mentioned Times Beach, Missouri, and I glommed onto that, because Whitney is in Missouri. And then you also mentioned Seveso, Italy, and I’m currently at a residency in Italy.
I thought, oh my God, and in Times Beach, one of the interesting things was that it was abandoned in 1983. But the motor oil thing was going on from ’72 to ’76, which means that people were living in that town with the dioxin and it became uninhabitable seven years later. So this long stretch of time happens where people are living in this place, it’s not safe at all, and it takes them that long to do anything.
KA: They knew. They knew it was unsafe by then. I mean, they used it to defoliate jungles. They knew it could cause harm, you know, to living things.
WT: In East Palestine right now, these people are saying, “Should we be here?” And the government is saying, “Oh, you’re fine.” And they’re like, “We don’t know.” I just feel like it’s so terrifying to watch that happen.
KA: Yeah, I think these kinds of incidents, honestly, can create a lot of our political divide. And I don’t mean to get into politics. I’m not a politician. I’m not a dioxin expert. But when people living in these rural towns are affected by these environmental disasters, then they feel like they’re being lied to by their government, they don’t trust the government anymore. So therefore, they don’t want the regulations. Whitney, like you were saying, people don’t want regulations because they don’t trust the government. Therefore we end up in this crazy circle of nobody’s getting helped.
VVG: That makes complete sense. So in your book, you write really powerfully about the government and industry collaborating to suppress information about the harmfulness of dioxin. I wonder if you could read a passage about that from your book.
Although I had skimmed the EPA draft assessment on dioxin years ago, trying to sum it up was like trying to sum up the Bible and trying to understand it was like trying to understand God/their/him/herself. It’s hard to compute. I search through the notes on my computer to see what I wrote about that report, and find an email exchange with Stephen Lester, the science director at the Center for Health, Environment and Justice, an organization led by Lois Gibbs, an activist who brought public attention to the Love Canal crisis. I had written to Stephen in 2017, asking if he could school me on the EPA’s dioxin assessments, which was his area of expertise. He said to call, however I dropped the ball.
I email Stephen again today, to see if he can clarify a few things, like why nobody’s talking about dioxin when it seems a critical health issue, at least to me.
He says there were two studies the EPA released on dioxin–one was the cancer risk assessment released in draft in 2003; the other was the non-cancer risk assessment released in final form in 2012. I hadn’t understood the difference until now. This was a change in the agency’s strategy, Stephen said, to exclude the cancer risks from the final EPA dioxin study. That 2012 report only discussed non-cancer risks such as reproductive and immune problems associated with dioxin exposure. The 2003 draft determined that dioxin was carcinogenic, and that the cancer risk was very high. Exposure to any amount of dioxin increased the risks of getting cancer.
“At the time of the 2012 report, the agency told us, and the public in general, that it was continuing to work on the cancer risk portion of the assessment, that they were not done,” Stephen writes. “But since that time, I’ve been told repeatedly by staff at the EPA (often off the record) that the cancer risk portion is on the shelf with no plans by the agency to go back to it.”
“Why?” I asked innocently enough, “Why won’t the EPA go back to finish the job and publish that report?”
“When the EPA ran the [dioxin] risk numbers for cancer, those numbers came out so high, it would have significant ramifications . . . a debilitating economic impact for the entire US economy.”
“What?” I hear myself asking him, not quite registering what he’s saying.
“Put it this way: If the EPA used cancer risk rate data to determine how much dioxin would be allowed in food, you wouldn’t be able to even buy McDonald’s hamburgers.”
“McDonald’s specifically?” I ask.
“No,” he says, and says that the threshold for dioxin is so low, based on the 2003 cancer risk assessment that almost all meat, fish, and animal by-products like butter and milk would have dioxin levels that exceed government standards for how much would be allowed in food. Even one simple hamburger could do a person harm. McDonald’s is just a handy reference. He reiterates that the EPA doesn’t currently list dioxin as a carcinogen.
“Will the EPA ever publish this data?” I ask. “Will they ever make these claims?”
“What they did was brilliant,” he says. “They published the study on non-cancer risks in 2012 then walked away. Dioxin is no longer a problem in the public eye, because the EPA stopped thinking about it and stopped analyzing it.”
“So everyone thinks the study is done,” I say.
“It seems that way. No one worries about dioxin anymore.”
WT: That is not good! Completely alarming. So the food I’m eating has dioxin in it all the time?
KA: Yeah, as does your body. I mean, all of us do. We all have it in us. We have enough in us to be almost carcinogenic. All of us. Because it bioaccumulates, it doesn’t go away. And it also is persistent. It’s a persistent organic pollutant. So it stays in our bloodstream. It’s got an extremely long half-life. And by the time we get rid of that portion that we ingested, we’re getting more, so it’s like a river of dioxin going into our bodies.
WT: So people are worried about having plastic in their bodies, right? I can deal with the plastic, but now this? I don’t feel good about it.
KA: Well, it’s interesting. Just recently… I want to follow up with a quick, little note that I worked with this high school in Boothbay, Maine, and they read this book, and the kids were horrified, the same as you. They were like: “What can we do?” I don’t know, I’m not an activist. I was like, “Just write to your governor, write to whoever.” So they write, and their letter gets sent to Defend Our Health. It’s this organization… Their tagline is: “Solutions for a toxic-free tomorrow.” You want to know what she said? Here’s what she said. I wrote it down because I want people to know. Her name is Sarah Woodbury.
She said, “I talked to my boss, and he said that the issue of dioxin isn’t really actionable. There was a big nationwide fight back in the day that led to action both in Maine and at the federal level. Those fights got rid of about 95 percent of the dioxin. What is left isn’t of much consequence. So there isn’t much to do. I hope that helps.”
WT: No, that does not help!
VVG: That sounds like a load of shit.
KA: “Solution for a toxic-free tomorrow.” Here’s the thing, even if 99 percent of the dioxin was gone, there’s the 1 percent. It’s been considered the most toxic human-made chemical that there is. So it’s very harmful in very, very, very undetectable amounts. So yeah, it’s not good.
• Mill Town: Reckoning with What Remains
• “Texas to New Jersey: Tracking the Toxic Chemicals in the Ohio Train Inferno” by Hiroko Tabuchi • “Whose Test Results Should East Palestine Believe?” by Gabrielle Gurley • “Leaked audio reveals U.S. rail workers were told to skip inspections as Ohio crash prompts scrutiny to industry” by Michael Sainato • White Noise by Don DeLillo • “Living and Breathing on the Front Line of a Toxic Chemical Zone” by Eric Lipton