SHARON COLLINS, CNN ENVIRONMENT UNIT: From the moment you get out of bed, chlorine is part of your life. It's in everything from prescription drugs to newspapers. It cleans your water, and waters your lawn. But there are potentially harmful side effects from our chlorine use. And that's why this chemical group is under attack.
One of those side effects is a group of unwanted chemicals called dioxins. They occur when industries use chlorine in manufacturing... or when incinerators burn plastics. As dioxin becomes airborne it travels thousands of miles away. Dioxin ends up in animals or fish, where it's stored in their fatty tissue. And when we eat these things, dioxin moves into our fat.
The Environmental Protection Agency says chlorine compounds like dioxin can cause serious health problems. And researchers say it's everywhere.
To see how widespread it is, we commissioned a study on fast food. Dr. Arnold Shecter, a dioxin specialist, gathered several of our favorites and sent them to the lab.
COLLINS (Interviewing): "...from reading what you found on the fast food, the doses of dioxins in the hamburger, chicken and pizza are already higher than what the EPA says is safe?"
DR. ARNOLD SHECTER, Dioxin Specialist: "Right. That was a surprise to us when we looked at all our data for the food that you and I are eating every day as average Americans and the fast food that we eat with some frequency. What we estimate from our calculations is that a Big Mac or Pizza Hut Personal Pan Supreme or three pieces of Kentucky fried chicken gives us about eight to 150 times more dioxins than the EPA feels would be a reasonable level."
COLLINS: The restaurants can't help it. Dioxin has had years to build up in the food chain. That's why the EPA wants to change the standards. It recently said even lower levels of dioxin may hurt us, by weakening our immunities or attacking our reproductive system. Though EPA's review board thinks the lower levels are too restrictive, other say they're not tough enough.
DR. SHECTER: "Dioxins in the doses we're talking about will not kill us. I mean you and I eat Big Macs and we're alive. What they will do is increase the rate of illness in a population. Picture a family tree. The chlorine family includes dioxins, PCBs, furans, and many chlorinated pesticides. The question is, how much can our bodies take before there's damage to our health? ... and then you put the new picture with it, and what you expect at this age is that they should look at the new picture now. And the kids who are PCB exposed did not do that."
COLLINS: Sandra and Joseph Jacobson spent the last decade testing children of mothers who, while they were pregnant, ate fish contaminated with PCBs from the Great Lakes.
JOSEPH JACOBSON (running test on small child): "OK, now this time you're not gonna press for the fish. If you see a star, you're gonna press the button..."
COLLINS (interviewing): "And you found basically that what you were seeing in the infants was also showing up in the 4 year olds?"
JACOBSON: "Right. In both cases the children who were exposed to higher levels of PCBs in utero performed more poorly in tests of short term memory."
COLLINS: They don't know whether the exposure caused attention deficit disorder or harmed the memory skills. What they do know is that children were impacted, and it happened in the fetal stage.
COLLINS (interviewing): "...when we set safe levels of a chemical it's based on an average white male?"
JACOBSON: "Yes, that's right and what's very important to understand that there are developmental issues where a child is more vulnerable, more than an adult, and the fetus is the most vulnerable."
COLLINS: It's that kind of study, more evidence, which has led some scientists to push for the phase-out of chlorinated compounds. But the chlorine industry says the proof just isn't there, and that you can't convict an entire class of chemicals based on a few bad ones.
WILLIAM J. CARROLL, JR. Ph.D, Chlorine Industry Council: "What this comes down to in many cases, if you look at the examples, we see reference to DDT and PCBs and dioxin. And from those three in particular, all the rest of the need to ban chlorine is inferred. But what we're talking about here is three chemicals in general, that have either been banned in the U.S. or we working to reduce them. That is really not enough evidence to ban an entire class of chemicals."
COLLINS: Scientists worried about what we don't know disagree.
DR. SHECTER: "Well, my perspective is as a public health physician. And as a physician if, if I'm going to make a mistake, I want to make a mistake to protect human health."
DR. PETER ORRIS, MD, MPH, University of Illinois-Chicago: "We maintain that the universal thread that runs through this class of chemicals is the presence of chlorine. And a new chlorinated compounds should be proved safe before it's introduced into our environment."
COLLINS: A commission formed by the U.S. and Canada to study pollution in the Great Lakes agrees. It said "the weight of evidence is there, that we are, through these discharges, affecting the way humans are developing."
Gordon Durnil chaired the International Joint Commission as an appointee of George Bush. He was amazed at the volume of chemicals poured into the Great Lakes, and frightened by possible health risks.
GORDON DURNIL: "...No one knows what's being put out there. Very few of those are being tested, almost none of them being tested for anything other than cancer. So we don't know what we're doing to ourselves still."
COLLINS: Wildlife experts across the nation have long blamed these chemicals for birth defects and thinning eggshells. Government tests show the waters off South Central Florida are heavy with chlorinated pesticides. Fishermen like Walter Kandrashoff have watched their catches dwindle and wondered why. Walter and his son Michael believe the chemicals are at least partly to blame.
WALTER KANDRASHOFF: "There it is, right there. Black mullet, scale disorientation.
COLLINS: They wanted to show us how easy it was to find sick or deformed fish. Despite the fact gusting winds kept us in what was supposed to be a clean area, close to half of those we saw had a problem.
KANDRASHOFF: "Oh yeah, we catch 'em with larger sores, sometimes you can see all the way down to the back bone. The scales will start to fall off and the skin will get eaten away..."
COLLINS: They keep the fish as a part of a project funded by Thomas Day, who started a research foundation when both his parents died of cancer.
KANDRASHOFF: "...and if we don't turn it around you are looking at a dead zone in the making and the fish are telling us what's the problem. Now all we got to do is listen and look and test and analyze. Here's our answers. They're trying to tell us what's wrong."
COLLINS: they mark, freeze and store the samples... fish the likes of which Walter never saw before. Walter began seeing sick fish in 1967. He's been bugging scientists for answers ever since.
KANDRASHOFF: "They wonder, but who's doing much about it? Who is looking at the environmental end of it? Where is this all coming from? Nobody wants to give us answers."
COLLINS: "It's not so much that no one wants to give the answers... it's just that they're so hard to get. We're talking about hundreds of chemicals, and the chlorine industry believes each one should be tested and judged separately, a process that would take years of research and millions of dollars. At issue is whether our health can stand the wait."
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