Linda Young doesn't live here anymore. She won't ever come back to the white frame house that sits abandoned in this flood-ravaged town of 2,500 after learning that her two sons played in dirt contaminated with one of the most dangerous chemicals known to man: dioxin.

Young wonders if a hysterectomy at 23, headaches so severe that medicine can't relieve the pain, her sons' rashes and birth defects in the children of several neighbors came from exposure to the toxic chemical.

"What is going to happen to us next?" she asked. "What will happen to my kids in 10 years?"

No one can answer the questions the people of Times Beach are asking. And they aren't the only ones angry and confused. The government estimates there are at least 14,000 hazardous waste dumps around the country that are leaking poisons, and residents in those areas want answers, too.

"There may be as many as 70 Times Beaches," said a senior official of the Environmental Protection Agency's hazardous waste cleanup program.

But this blue-collar town beneath gray granite bluffs on the muddy Meramec River has become a symbol of a national trauma no one seems to know how to control. Congress created the nation's first major program to clean up hazardous waste dumps only two years ago.

Yet the poisoning of Times Beach, and 14 other dioxin sites in Missouri and six in Illinois, happened long before that, a deadly legacy by industry and government from an era when there were no comprehensive laws to protect the public from dangers that few had imagined.

It was only by chance that officials discovered dioxin here two weeks ago after interviewing residents who recalled that a trucker had sprayed oil on their dirt roads to keep down dust a decade ago. The same man was under investigation for spraying dioxin-laced oil on roads across the state in the early 1970s.

Authorities were tipped in November to the spraying in Times Beach, much as they were tipped off earlier to 15 other contaminated Missouri sites. In Times Beach, an ex-truck driver for hauler Russell Bliss came forward to retrace his route.

Dioxin concentrations of one part per billion are considered hazardous. EPA lab tests Dec. 23 confirmed dioxin on several Times Beach roadsides 100 times higher than that.

Now officials worry that they may never find the 87 places reportedly used for dumping of dioxin-contaminated waste oil. "It's literally like trying to piece together a cold trail," said Bill Hedeman, director of EPA's hazardous waste cleanup program.

State and federal officials ignored the Centers for Disease Control when it confirmed that dioxin had contaminated an Imperial, Mo., subdivision and urged in 1975 that the dirt be moved to protect residents. One state environmental official then dismissed the CDC as "overly cautious."

Scapegoats seem to abound here. Citizens blame state bureaucrats for deadly delay. Officials blame their inaction on scientists who once believed dioxin decays faster than it does. EPA considers itself blameless.

"We had no authority to do anything until the Superfund law passed in 1980," Hedeman said. "Until that time there was only tangential involvement by the EPA working through Missouri state government."

"I don't think we're proud of the track record," said Fred A. Lafser, director of Missouri's Department of Natural Resources at one hearing.

Bliss, 48, who for years made his living hauling hazardous wastes and used oil from factories, has been quoted here as blaming a now-defunct pharmaceutical firm for failing to warn him of the dangers in its waste. Former company officials said their warnings were ignored. Bliss could not be reached for comment.

"Nobody told me there was anything bad in it," Bliss told a St. Louis newspaper in December. "If they had, I wouldn't have taken it."

Dave Covert feels bad about what happened. He drove the truck for Bliss when Times Beach was sprayed. "I was only following orders, but I dream about it," he said. "When I hear people talking about the effects they're feeling now, tears come to my eyes."

There are few records. Investigators rely on decade-old memories of people like Covert, a tall, thin man who claims a variety of ills from chemical exposure, to follow the toxic trail. Bliss has refused to cooperate, Lafser said. Bliss faces five lawsuits from property owners, officials said, and an unrelated indictment for tax evasion.

Meanwhile, EPA technicians stalk the town in "space suits," sanitary gloves and respirators, digging through muddy homes and debris and taking soil samples to see if the heavy floods washed dioxin-laced mud from the roadsides into homes. Dioxin clings to dirt and dust particles and officials fear that residents may inhale it or swallow it if they return home.

At a recent town meeting, angry Times Beachers wondered why, if the chemical is so dangerous, the government didn't supply them with the same protective suits worn by the EPA workers.

"This is the first time anyone ever asked for them," an EPA official told the questioners.

In laboratory animals, dioxin causes cancer, birth defects, miscarriages, diseases of the nerves, kidneys, liver and even death at the lowest levels tested, a few parts per trillion in some cases. Some streets here measured 100 parts per billion--100 times higher than the level the CDC considers dangerous.

"Under no circumstances would I want to raise a family in Times Beach," said Dr. Gary Stein, a CDC epidemiologist. "There are too many unknowns at this point."

While the CDC warned residents to evacuate and stay out to avoid dioxin exposure, the jury is still out on its long-term effect on humans, as well as the extent of contamination.

"Is it in the houses?" asked Bill Keffer, the beleaguered EPA engineer in command here. "Is it in the garbage? Did it get into the water supply? We've found it on the shoulders of the roads, but how much is in the roadbed? How deep did it go down? Is it in the ditches? Will it be cheaper to buy out the town or clean it up?"

Officials won't know until next month, when 250 new dirt samples come back from the lab. Meanwhile, Faron Rowden, a beefy bartender, is among 300 locals fed up with waiting for answers. He's mopped up the mud and moved back into his mobile home at the Easy Living Trailer Park with his wife and 5-year-old son.

"Why, if it's so dangerous, did the government wait 10 years to warn us?" he asked. "I figure anyone who's been contaminated done been contaminated. Why put your tail between your legs and run now after you been living with it so long?"

"I've eaten in it, inhaled it and rolled around in it and I'm in good shape," boasted Mayor Sid Hammer, repairing a neighbor's furnace in mud-caked jeans. "Only if they said, 'Sid, next week you'll have cancer,' I might worry."

Larry Collier pledges to hoist an American flag in his yard as a symbol of defiance. "You win a battle, you stick up a flag," said the Chrysler assembly line worker. "This is a war to stay on the land you worked and paid for. It's a free country. I'm staying until they make me leave."

The Times Beach story began as a medical mystery in 1971 when Bliss was hired to dispose of 18,000 gallons of gooey, foul-smelling sludge from the defunct Northeastern Pharmaceutical & Chemical Co. in Verona. The waste was the unwanted byproduct from manufacturing the antiseptic hexachlorophene.

Bliss has accounted for spreading at least 7,000 gallons of dioxin-contaminated oil across the state, but officials fear there was much more. He was hired to dispose of the waste after Northeastern was absorbed by Syntex Agribusiness Inc.

Court records show that Northeastern had waste buried on farm land and discharged some waste through its plant's sewage system. These practices came to the EPA's attention in 1979 and Syntex entered into a consent agreement to clean up the sites.

It was during this period that Bliss was trucking some of the sludge to his own storage tanks where he mixed it with waste oil and sold it for dust control.

Bliss became wealthy spraying it across the state, and he even sprayed it on his own farm, which he would have avoided had he known it was toxic, he has said.

The dioxin content in his mixture was estimated at 350 parts per million. Bliss has said he had no idea that toxic chemicals were involved.

After Bliss sprayed the Shenandoah Stables in Moscow Mills in 1971, owner Judy Piatt watched barn sparrows die "by the bushel."

Over several weeks, 11 cats and four dogs dropped dead nearby. Insects fell from the air. Piatt's daughter became ill, one of nine people to get sick. Almost 100 horses died agonizing deaths at three horse arenas Bliss visited.

On a hunch, one stable owner dug up his contaminated dirt and sold it as landfill for homesites in Imperial. Some was used in highway roadbeds. More than a decade later, erosion spread dioxin-laced fill dirt to a nearby subdivision and contaminated a creek.

In August, the EPA warned Imperial residents of a potential dioxin problem, later revealing that it suspected contamination of 40 other sites in Missouri.

After months of testing, the EPA last month disclosed Imperial dioxin levels as high as 350 parts per billion and recommended that six families be relocated so cleanup can begin.

Missouri's problem is different from New York's Love Canal, which Hooker Chemical used as a toxic dump for dioxin until it was discovered in 1978. Dioxin levels here are lower, but wider spread, officials said.

"They got rid of Agent Orange by burning it," Hedeman said of the dioxin-based herbicide used widely in Vietnam. "But such a huge amount of dirt is not feasible to burn. You can move it, but you can't get rid of it. Our approach is not to destroy it, but to assure public exposure can be limited" to healthy levels.

"Hindsight would be wonderful," Lafser said. "Thirty years from now we'll know more about dioxin's effect on people and it may not be as bad as we think, or it might be worse."

Downstream from the Verona plant, dairyman Bill Davis watched eight cows die after they drank from a river a half-mile from the factory where all Missouri's dioxin was once produced. Tests show dioxin in the fish. Fourteen calves either have been stillborn or died shortly after birth, and last week another tumor-riddled cow was slaughtered for dioxin testing by the Food and Drug Administration.

But it was not until Piatt's horses began dying and her daughter became ill that CDC toxicologists believed something was dreadfully wrong. For three years, investigators were baffled.

Piatt had a hunch that there was something in Bliss' oil and started befriending his drivers and tailing his trucks. She took photos, dispatching them along with names of chemical companies and sites he visited to EPA and state officials in 1972. She pleaded for action. No one listened. Times Beach was on her list, she said.

"You'd tell people, 'it's got to be a chemical in the horse arena' and they'd look at you like you were nuts," she said. "Bliss told me it couldn't be in the oil because he didn't haul chemicals."

Finally, Dr. Renate Kimbrough, a CDC toxicologist, suggested testing for dioxin, the only dangerous hexachlorophene byproduct. Crystals used to make the antiseptic had been found in barn soil later used as fill dirt. A dozen rabbits' ears were swabbed with a 300 ppb dioxin solution taken from contaminated soil residue. The rabbits died.

Three years after the horses died, dioxin was confirmed in dirt Bliss had sprayed. Waste was tracked to the Verona plant. Records confirmed Bliss had been there. Times Beach had paid Bliss $4,900 to spray its streets in 1972.

"We're still paying dearly," local activist Yolanda Bohrer said.

Indeed, no homeowner in Times Beach has flood insurance because the town voted itself out of the federal flood insurance program. Many have relocated with federal emergency help, but hard-headed "river rats," as they call themselves, are rebuilding modest homes in the "Show Me" state.

Hammer, for example, wants "proof" that dioxin is dangerous or a fair-market price from the government for his property to move.

Those who do return, however, are eager to have the EPA check their homes for dioxin and fill out CDC health questionnaires as part of a $500,000 statewide study of potential dioxin victims. Those most severely exposed get follow-up physicals.

To outsiders, Times Beach residents might as well have bubonic plague. Jerry Hatcher, the town's heavy equipment dealer, lost a sale when a customer found dust on a tractor tire. Some even refused to shake his hand. Parents in nearby towns wince when Karen Adams, a Times Beach school bus driver, picks up their kids.

Entrepreneurs like Truman Nickel, however, are busy hauling away beat-up mobile homes for resale in Alabama and Louisiana with the EPA's blessing. The only request: wash down the trailers first. No one is testing them.

After the flood, 40 residents at one trailer park vowed to go home again. "Then the dioxin scare hit and most said they didn't want to fight it," said Charlie Stone, the park owner. "They'd tell me, 'You can't see it, taste it or feel it.' It's fear of the unknown."

Staff writer Dale Russakoff contributed to this report.