"No-one Ever Died
From Dioxin" The Dioxin Problem in Britain The recent Belgian food scare brought dioxins into sharp focus. Thanks to the chemical industries and incineration, few places are free of these dangerous chemicals, which have been accumulating in nature, in foodstuffs and even in the human body, for decades. In this special focus, three specialist writers explain different aspects of the dioxin problem.
By Ralph Ryder
Once again, the most notorious by-product of chlorine chemistry, dioxin, is making headlines around the world. The discovery of polychlorinated biphenyl (PCBs) and dioxin-contaminated food products in Belgium earlier this year (see box on page 371) resulted in a number of EU countries imposing restrictions on that country's farm produce. Countries outside the EU, including Russia, Hong Kong and Israel, imposed bans on Belgian farm produce, while the USA banned all farm produce from the EU.
Despite the best efforts of politicians and the chlorine and incinerator industries to play down the dangers from dioxin and dioxin-like substances,* research has shown that minuscule amounts of this unwanted by-product pose a very real threat to human health.
Wha t ar e Dioxins ? During the 1930s and 40s, chemists discovered that attaching chlorine atoms onto petroleum hydrocarbons produced a vast array of 'chlorinated hydrocarbons'. These gave rise to many of today's pesticides, solvents, plastics, oils etc., most of which contain dioxins. 'Dioxin' is the name given to a group of unwanted chemical by-products of this process, (the most potent being 2,3,7,8 tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin [TCDD]), that are produced whenever chlorinated hydrocarbons are processed or burned in an incinerator. Dioxins are extremely persistent and bio-accumulative in the environment and lodge in the fatty tissues in our bodies. Dioxin-containing substances surround us every day, in food containers, plastic products, and oil-and-solvent-based fluids.
taminated produce of Belgium?
The reason is that, despite the best efforts of politicians and the chlorine and incinerator industries to play down the dangers from dioxin and dioxin-like substances,* research has shown that minuscule amounts of this unwanted by-product pose a very real threat to human health, particularly that of the developing foetus and the breast-fed child. While it is true that chloracne is the most obvious external symptom of high dioxin exposure, dioxin is now acknowledged as being a highly potent carcinogen and disrupter of the reproductive and endocrine (immune) systems in wildlife and humans.
A Histor y o f Poisonin g There have been two previous dioxin food contamination incidents very similar to that in Belgium today. One in Yusho, Japan, in 1968 saw a serious mass intoxication of 1,700 people after they had consumed rice contaminated with PCBs from a leaking oil coil. Heating (by cooking) of the contaminated oil produced high levels of dioxin, and about 20 people died as a result. Other symptoms included chloracne, melanosis, oedema
Dioxins are extremely persistent and bioaccumulative in the environment and lodge in the fatty tissues in our bodies. Dioxincontaining substances surround us every day, in food containers, plastic products, and oil - and solvent-based fluids.
Dioxin s an d Huma n Healt h Industry and advocates of industrial waste incineration (the main way that dioxins - from the burning of waste, plastics and oils - are released into the environment) have argued for decades that dioxin does not pose a major health threat, claiming consistently that "no one has ever died from dioxin." Its chief impact is simply chloracne, say these apologists - an "unsightly skin complaint". But i f this is really true, why did so many countries take such drastic action against the dioxin-con-
*The term 'dioxin' is used to connote the group of 210 similar substances, polychlorinated dibenzo-p-dioxins and polychlorinated dibenzofurans. Certain types of polychlorbiphenyls (PCBs) have similar biological effects and are included among dioxin-like substances.
of the eyes, swelling and stiffening of the limbs, headaches and hearing difficulties.1
Children subsequently born to exposed parents had malformations of various kinds. They were undersized with small heads and brown, hyperpigmented skin (they were dubbed 'cola babies'). They had abnormally shaped tooth roots and altered eruption of permanent teeth. They grew and developed slowly, had learning difficulties and emotional and pulmonary (lung) problems. Long-term studies identified a high incidence of malignant neoplasms (primarily liver as well as lung, trachea and bronchus). There were significantly increased liver cancer and lung cancer and a slight increase in diabetes, heart disease, chronic liver disease and cirrhosis.23
The Ecologist, Vol. 29, No 6, October 1999