By Elizabeth Erwin
About three years ago, I came to EPA and joined the communications team in the organization that manages EPA’s Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS) Program (a human health assessment program that evaluates the health effects of exposure to environmental chemicals). I heard various chemical names mentioned all the time, but it seemed as if one in particular was mentioned more often than others—dioxin.
I quickly learned that EPA has a long history with dioxin, a highly toxic, persistent environmental chemical known to cause a number of adverse health effects. For years, EPA and other federal agencies worked together to reduce known and measurable dioxin emissions in the United States.
In February 2012, EPA reached an enormous milestone by completing the long-awaited IRIS assessment for dioxin (focused on health effects other than cancer). The assessment provides much needed information on the potential noncancer health effects resulting from exposure to dioxin and, for the first time, an estimate of the amount of dioxin that one can ingest daily over a lifetime that is not likely to cause harmful health effects (the “oral reference dose”).
The assessment is an essential component of the Agency’s dioxin science plan as risk assessors, health professionals, and state, local, and international governments rely on its findings to guide decisions to protect public health.
This month, the team responsible for completing the dioxin assessment received some well-deserved recognition. On May 8 EPA’s “Team Dioxin” received a Federal Service Excellence Project Team Award. Team Dioxin includes Hisham El-Masri, Belinda Hawkins, Glenn Rice, Jeffrey Swartout, Linda Teuschler, Scott Wesselkamper, Michael Wright, and Bette Zwayer.
In 2009, this team of scientists was tasked with completing the dioxin assessment on an expedited schedule. Meeting this challenge placed them under intense pressure and required countless sacrifices, but at every turn they met the challenge.
“In order to meet the aggressive schedule outlined by [former] EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson, the team sacrificed time with family because they understood the significance of their work to the American people” explains Annette Gatchett, Director of NCEA’s Cincinnati branch where the dioxin team is headquartered.
Indeed, the team spent months pouring over the extensive, complex, and controversial science that exists on dioxin, evaluating over 1,000 published epidemiology and toxicology studies and analyzing numerous data sets on a variety of adverse health outcomes attributed to dioxin exposures.
Despite the sacrifices, the team’s effort was worth it. “Working on EPA’s dioxin report was extremely interesting and rewarding,” says Glenn Rice, one of the lead authors of the assessment. “Over the many nights and weekends of working on the project, I developed a sincere and deep appreciation for the expertise, dedication and senses of humor of my collaborators.”
Completing the IRIS assessment for dioxin (non-cancer) is an incredible achievement, one that I am grateful to have been at EPA to witness. Without a doubt, achievements such as Team Dioxin’s embody the Agency’s mission to protect human health and the environment and make me proud to come to work each day.
About the author: Elizabeth Erwin is a member of EPA’s science communication team where she helps make IRIS and other EPA science programs and assessments available and accessible.