We all have a little Viktor Yushchenko in us. Not the newly martyred political leader part, but the poisoned bits, the fatty tissue that sits on our bones, contaminated by environmental pollutants. And dioxin, the highly toxic chemical likely drizzled in the Ukrainian pol's soup, is one of them. The difference is that most of us don't consider ourselves poisoned. Calling it that would mean recognizing that our industries are killing us, little by little, day by day, every time dioxin is spewed out of incinerators, cement kilns, pulp and paper mills and coal-fired power plants. Every time it's coughed out the back of diesel trucks, and spread onto farmers' fields through urban sewage sludge. All of which can't be a crime, really, if they aren't doing it on purpose, right? Using it to kill off a beloved political leader, however, is.
Now, all this high drama and international intrigue has made dioxin the talk of the town. Maybe not, however, in the context of its persistence in our environment - its high-profile past as an ingredient in Agent Orange was way sexier, don't you think?
But I do think the man disfigured by a chemical present in all our lives is the perfect poster boy for this, the year of the poisoned fish - rung in by alarming media reports that our farmed salmon stocks are loaded with environmental contaminants like DDT, PCB and, yes, dioxin, too. New studies confirmed high mercury levels in tuna eaters, and California sued three manufacturers of the canned fish for not warning us about the toxin. And let's not forget the fire retardants already found in salmon near San Fran and in the Great Lakes that turned up in Canadian women's breast milk.
We all winced. But with each discovery we faced the same scenario. The press got excited, the public freaked out for a bit, and Health Canada told us not to worry.
"Keep eating that farmed salmon," they said.
"Don't worry about canned tuna, just cut back on the fresh or frozen stuff," they added (though the U.S. gov says to eat no more than two servings of light canned tuna and one of albacore a week).
"We've tested for several months and deduced that fire retardants won't make your baby sick," they assured us.
"Did we tell you Canada banned DDT in the late 60s? Oh, and dioxins, those are down 60 per cent since the mid-1990s."
We tried to believe them.
But now we have Yushchenko. Yes, politically disenfranchised Ukrainians might already have claimed him as their martyr, but that doesn't mean the environmental health movement can't still christen him its new patron saint. Yes, he swallowed way more of the stuff than you might, but he's a manifestation of just what's wrong with what we're pumping into our skies, our waters, our land, our meat and ultimately ourselves.
Like him, we're not sure exactly what's killing us.
If we believe Yushchenko's detractors, it's probably just a touch of food poisoning.