I TROMPED INTO the Easy Living Trailer Park in Times Beach, Mo., and locals sitting around a gas heater in muddy jeans began chuckling at my outfit: white protective coveralls from head to foot, yellow booties over my shoes, a respirator over my face.
"What do you think this is, Halloween?" laughed one resident who has chosen to ignore official pleas to get out of this town, the very soil of which is thought to be contaminated with dioxin, perhaps the most poisonous chemical known to man.
Officials won't be able to confirm until next month just how badly this flood-ravaged blue-collar town of 2,500 people along the muddy Meramek River is affected by the chemical. Meanwhile, about 300 people have chosen to remain.
Dioxin-laced waste oil was spread on roads here to keep down dust a decade ago, but wasn't discovered by the EPA until last month. It clings to dirt and dust particles and is believed to damage organs as concentrations build up over time.
"It's not the sort of poison that makes you feel discomfort right away," said Fred Lafser, Missouri's top environmental official. "That's why it's hard for people to understand the danger. It might take 10 years to notice the effects."
I'd left the sanitary plastic gloves in the car. It's impolite to shake hands with gloves on, though I didn't care to shake any. It's also hard to take notes. How can you interview with a mask on? I took it off.
For reporters, the dioxin scare in Times Beach has provoked a crisis in etiquette and ethics in America's poisoned heartland: Should you shake the hand of a man who may have dioxin-laced dirt on them? Do you kiss a woman from Times Beach? What if someone invites you to sit at their kitchen table and offers a cup of coffee? Do you drink it?
Editors at The St. Louis Post-Dispatch have adopted an unofficial dioxin policy: no pregnant reporters or photographers are dispatched to Times Beach. Dioxin has caused miscarriages, birth defects, cancer, liver and nerve damage in the smallest concentrations tested in lab animals. No one knows about humans. It is different from covering a war. At least you can dodge bullets.
County police curtailed patrols out of fear of contamination, after the Center for Disease Control urged residents to get out and stay out last month. St. Louis health officials want Times Beach migrants to register before moving into the city, but no one can force them. Even garbage dumps spurn the trash from Times Beach.
So there are nagging questions. What do you do with the rental car once you have driven it around the "Keep Out" barricade decorated with red skull and cross bones on the outskirts of town, along dusty streets where the Environmental Protection Agency has confirmed dioxin concentrations 100 times higher than those considered hazardous?
"You're not going to take our car THERE, are you?" asked a clerk at the Avis counter when I asked for directions.
"Should I go to Hertz?"
"Well, just wash it off good before you bring it back," she said.
A hand was thrust at me. It belonged to Charlie Stone, 47, the tall, burly trailer-park owner. I shook it without hestitation, a reflex of Southern upbringing.
"You afraid them dioxins going to get you?" he asked. "We had two of 'em tied up, but one was blind, so we had to shoot it. The other started chasing cars and got away."
Was I now contaminated? Should I make out a will? Epidemiologists at the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta advised me to wear protective gear just in case dioxin proves as dangerous to humans as it has to lab animals. At least, I would die a gentleman.
Most of the town has left, full of fear and anxiety about their future and their health. Those who remain are coping through humor. Bruno, the mayor's vicious German shepherd, is now called a "diox-hound."
For medical crises, there is a chiropractic clinic which has sprung up in a trailer to minister to snake bites and stress, bad backs, headaches and fear. Vitamin C, garlic pills and "adjustments" (gloried back rubs) are dispensed for free by interns who fancy themselves wartime medics.
"People here are starting to get scared," said Teresa Bell, an attractive intern. "All we can do is adjust them, try to ease some of their tensions and advise them to stop eating a lot of junk food like caffeine, sugar and other chemicals. We can clear them up structurally, but not chemically. Of course, dioxin is an anxiety we can't get rid of.
"What's your problem? You don't sound so good."
"Laryngitis," I croaked.
"Take off your shirt and lie down on the table," she ordered. A pleasant back rub came next, but as she tried to pull the space suit over my boots, she got Times Beach dirt on her hands -- the same hands she used to "adjust" my back.
"Why worry, when you can get cancer from eating sacharin?" asked Judy Fitts, whose four children have played in the dirt. "You can get liver damage from going to the Western Lounge seven nights a week. I got a 5-year-old boy smart as a tack. If it affected him any, it helped."
"He'd been a complete idiot without dioxin," quipped Stone.
"It's already got us if it's going to get us," said Ken Hutcheson, 56, a former alderman who isn't moving.
So the nightly news stars EPA engineers in space suits, stalking the town for dirt samples while locals like Stone laugh at the "moon men." What the cameras don't show are network cameramen dressed like Casper the Friendly Ghost dogging their steps. The outfits cost $36.50. I bought two in St. Louis.
Still, there are dilemmas. After you dispose of the suit and booties, you step into a car full of Times Beach dirt. It gets on your shoes and pants. Do you throw them away? I did -- after I'd tracked dirt into theemotel room. Would someone adopt my castoffs? At what risk? It got ridiculous.
"At some point, you've got to stop worrying, but we don't know what that point is," said Lafser.