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Puget Sound 'tub' tainted by industrial residue of toxic dioxin

A dioxin survey map from the EPA, establishing baseline data through sampling by the research vessel Bold. Sediment samples were collected and analyzed at 70 locations throughout the Sound.
US EPA image
A dioxin survey map from the EPA, establishing baseline data through sampling by the research vessel Bold. Sediment samples were collected and analyzed at 70 locations throughout the Sound.

When you think about Puget Sound, a bathtub might not be the first image to come to mind.

But that’s one way environmentalists and scientists sometimes describe it, because the shape of Puget Sound is an important factor when it comes to keeping it clean.

A long-awaited report from the Environmental Protection Agency on the health effects of dioxin is confirming what many experts have known for a long time. 

Long wait for official nod to science

Twenty seven years, to be more precise. That's how long many activists say the public has been waiting for the finalization of a "science assessment" report that formally links dioxins to many serious and chronic health hazards that can be life-threatening to humans.

The report validates the peer-reviewed findings of numerous research teams who had already found exposure to dioxintoxic to human health.

“So, for example, suppressing the immune system, reproductive impacts, neurological impacts,” says Heather Trim, policy director for People for Puget Sound.

She says these affects are also applicable to wildlife, such as the Sound's iconic Orca whales or the endangered Chinook salmon they feed on.

EPA cites progress

The EPA's press release looks less alarming than that of the activist groups, leading with the news that air emissions of dioxins have decreased by 90 percent since the 1980s. The decrease is attributed to decades of work by the agency to reduce toxic emissions. The agency also says "generally, over a person's lifetime, current exposure to dioxins does not pose a significant health risk."

But, recent sampling by the EPA has provided baseline data on dioxin hotspots and found dioxins all around the sound, mostly as legacy pollutionfrom things like pulp and paper mills. 

It also comes from landfills that incinerate trash, especially plastics.

And it has been associated with cement production and diesel exhaust.

“We're finding it in Olympia at Bud Inlet, we're finding it at Lora lakes Apartments, next to Seatac, Bellingham Bay, Everett in Port Gardiner ... the Duwamish River, Port Angeles, the Columbia River – It's just all over the sound from these old industrial sources," Trim says.

She says Puget Sound is like a big tub, so pollutants don’t wash out of it.  Instead, they slosh around and settle in.

A persistent poison

Dioxin works its way from the sediments and soil up the food chain and is most prevalent in fatty foods such as meat, fish and dairy products.

In some neighborhoods near hotspots, community groups have sounded alarm bells about health hazards that come from ingesting soil or dust tainted with dioxin. People for Puget Sound's Heather Trim says that in places such as Seattle's Georgetown or Capitol Hill, there's concern about hand-to-mouth transfer when people and animals play outside.

"People basically eat a little bit of soil and dust all day long. And dioxin is absorbed into that soil," Trim says.

But the EPA says 90 percent of human exposure comes from the foods we eat, so you can reduce your exposure by eating fewer fatty foods.

More work ahead

Activist groups are celebrating the new health report, but also pressing for new limits on how much dioxins are allowed to remain, says Mike Schade with the Virginia-based Center for Health, Environment and Justice.

“We can’t just shop our way out of this problem. We really need the federal government, we need the EPA to step up to the plate and develop a comprehensive plan of action to protect Americans from exposure to dioxin,” Schade says.

He says a new clean up standard proposed by EPA administrator Lisa Jackson would reduce the parts per trillion allowed from 1000 to 72, making it more than ten times as protective.

But that proposed new standard has been languishing at the White House, in the office of management and budgets, for a year and a half.  

An EPA health report linking dioxin to cancer is also still yet to come.

Editor's note:  The original caption to the photo at the top of this story misinterpreted the significance of the green dots on the EPA sampling map. They are not dioxin hotspots, but rather locations where baseline data samples were collected.

Bellamy Pailthorp covers the environment for KNKX with an emphasis on climate justice, human health and food sovereignty. She enjoys reporting about how we will power our future while maintaining healthy cultures and livable cities. Story tips can be sent to