LITTLE DIOXIN RISK FOUND IN BLEACHED PAPER PRODUCTS

LITTLE DIOXIN RISK FOUND IN BLEACHED PAPER PRODUCTS

The amounts of cancer-causing dioxins in milk cartons, coffee filters and toilet tissues are too small to pose a health problem, according to a government report that seeks to ease concerns about bleached paper products.

Some environmentalists have raised concern about the use of the products since it was discovered in recent years that traces of the highly toxic dioxins - a byproduct of the bleaching process - remained in the wood pulp.The Environmental Protection Agency announced its findings on dioxins in bleached paper later Monday, including agency plans to continue pressing the industry to reduce dioxin contamination of paper products.

"There's not enough of a risk to create a public concern," an agency official familiar with the findings said Sunday.

He said in each case the cancer risk from dioxin contamination of paper products was no greater than one in 1 million. That's below the threshold where regulatory action would be considered.

But the EPA continues to have serious concerns about dioxin contamination of waterways near some paper mills, according to agency officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

According to the EPA findings, dioxin contamination of fish near some of the paper mills was found to be high enough to pose a cancer risk of one in 1,000 to people who frequently consume fish from those waterways.

That is a thousand times greater than the risk threshold level the EPA normally uses when considering regulatory action in cases involving the contamination of food products by cancer-causing chemicals.

A risk level of one in 1,000 means one person out of 1,000 people similarly exposed would be expected to get cancer because of the contamination.

Overall, the dioxin levels in fish varied widely among the various mills, officials said. No information about specific mills was available.

Dioxins are a family of highly toxic chemicals that cause cancer and birth defects. The chemical is of particular concern because it remains in the body of any organism that ingests it and it migrates up the food chain.

A series of studies by the EPA and paper industry revealed over the past five years that dioxins are a byproduct of the paper bleaching process and that some amounts of dioxins are transferred to paper products.

Bleached paper is used in a variety of paper products including coffee filters, paper towels, food containers and packaging, facial tissue, toilet paper, disposable diapers and milk or beverage cartons. The most significant concern has been with products in direct contact with foods such as milk cartons or meat packaging.

Red Caveny, president of the American Paper Institute, said the 38 operators of the 104 mills that produce bleached paper have joined in a $2 billion program aimed at reducing dioxin contamination. "We have been able to reduce the levels (of dioxins) almost 50 percent in the last two years," he said in an interview.

Mr. Caveny said about half of the bleached paper products now have dioxin levels of no more than 2 parts per trillion - levels so low they are similar to "background" levels found in many food products. Similar reductions will be achieved in other products over the next two years as more mills make processing changes, he said.

Some environmentalists said, however, that no level of dioxin contamination is acceptable.

Karen Florini, an attorney for the Environmental Defense Fund, called the industry's attempts to reduce dioxin contamination "a step in the right direction" but expressed continuing concern about the high level of dioxins found in fish near some of the paper mills.

"There's no reason why consumers should have to accept any dioxin in their paper. Just because it's white doesn't mean it's pure," said Shelley Stewart, who is with the Greenpeace environmental group.