contents page
previous next
zoom out zoom in
thumbnails double page single page large double page
fit width
click to zoom in click to zoom in  
contents page
previous next
zoom out zoom in
thumbnails double page single page large double page
fit width


Very few food products are dioxin-free

The second incident occurred in 1979 in Yu Cheng, Taiwan. This was a virtual repeat of the Yusho PCB-rice oil disaster with more than 2,000 identified victims. Children exposed prenatally developed slowly and are still retarded. They had brown skin, chloracne, pulmonary problems, and extensive stimulation of P450s.4

Dioxins have entered the human body in other ways, too. In the Italian town of Seveso, on July 10, 1976 an explosion at the Hoffman-La Roche chemical plant saw a visible chemical (dioxin) cloud spread over several square miles. Studies covering 1976-1986, a short period in which to find cancer occur-

A study of 1J89 workers exposed to dioxin between 1952 and 1984, at a pesticidemanufacturing plant in Hamburg, Germany, found increases in all deaths among the dioxin-exposed workers when compared with a control group of 2,528 non-dioxin-exposed workers in the same region.

rences, showed an increase in heart diseases and connective and soft-tissue cancer. Both men and women showed an increase in rare blood and liver cancers.5

Fifteen years after the accident, deaths from all forms of cancer had increased, with a three-fold increase in rectal cancer in men; a significant increase in blood cancer in men and women; and a six-fold increase in Hodgkin's disease and myeloma in women.67 There was also an increase in heart attacks, thought to have been a result of ischaemic heart disease which has now been noted in other studies on dioxinexposed groups. Ischaemic heart disease refers to a narrowing of the arteries with consequent reduction of blood flow which can result in a heart attack.

A study of 1,189 workers exposed to dioxin between 1952 and 1984, at a pesticide-manufacturing plant in Hamburg, Germany, found increases in all deaths among the dioxin-exposed workers when compared with a control group of 2,528 nondioxin-exposed workers in the same region. These included cancer deaths and ischaemic heart diseases, compared with same-aged individuals in the control group. The disease-relat­

ed deaths increased with the dose of dioxin to which the workers were exposed: greater dioxin-exposure was related to higher death rates. The authors concluded that the results of the study "support the hypothesis of a dose-related effect of PCDD/F [dioxin and furans] on a cancer and ischaemic heart disease mortality."8

Th e Grea t Dioxi n Cover-u p Despite such evidence, the chemical and incineration industries continue to insist that dioxins are "virtually harmless". They have supported these absurd claims with data from falsified, industry-conducted studies of incidents involving chemical workers. To give one example: the officials of the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) took industrysupplied data as read, and used it to assess the human health effects of dioxin. Re-examination by independent scientists, sometimes working on behalf of workers, then revealed that a number of these studies were falsified.910"

After being exposed to dioxin-contaminated Agent Orange during the Vietnam War, US veterans suffered a multitude of health complaints including soft-tissue sarcoma, nonHodgkin's lymphoma and Hodgkin's disease, Porphyria cutanea tarda (PCT) (a rare blood disorder), and chloracne not, as industrialists would have the public believe, "a nasty skin complaint", but a disfiguring, systematic disease that can last for decades and even recur over 20 years after exposure. Consequent studies of the veterans found "sufficient evidence of a statistical association with exposure to herbicides or dioxin."12

But a later study commissioned by the US Centre for Disease Control (CDC) to determine i f veterans were suffering health problems from exposure to Agent Orange was headed by Dr. Vernon Houk of the Centre for Environmental Health and Injury Control. This study was abandoned three years later when Houk concluded that it was "impossible" to identify who had been sprayed and who hadn't. The National Academy of Science did not agree, saying: "there was more than enough evidence to complete a creditable epidemiological study", but the CDC still abandoned the study.

A Committee on Government Operations in 1986 concluded that the CDC study had been "flawed and perhaps designed to fail", and that the government had "effectively used the CDC study to stifle any attempts to link Agent Orange to health effects," which would have seen the government liable to compensate the veterans.13

To give another example - one town exposed through 'dioxin' spraying of a different nature was the Missouri town of

The Coalite Chemical Plant in Bolsover, England, was the scene of one of the most determined dioxin cover-ups of recent years


The Ecologist, Vol. 29, No 6, October 1999 NO-ONE EVER DIE D FROM DIOXI N

The Belgian Dioxin Crisis, 1999 by Miriam Jacobs

In February 1999, Belgian chicken farmers noticed signs of acute poisoning in their flocks - in particular, an increased death rate, failure of eggs to hatch and severe nervous disorders. This was later found to be caused by a cocktail of dioxins in the chickenfeed. After analysis for nutrient deficiencies, the veterinary inspector sent a sample of feed, and a dead hen, to the national lab for food quality in the Netherlands. It is believed that about 8 litres of used PCB oil, probably from a transformer, ended up in an 80 tonne batch of recycled fats used to make animal feed, mainly for chickens. It was sold as recycled animal fat, but contained vegetable oil too.

The Belgian government was informed of the problem in late April 1999, and further analyses were conducted. The dioxin levels found in two eggs were extremely high. Another 10 chicks were also analysed, and were found to be contaminated. On 26 May 1999, Belgium informed its neighbours and the European Commission - as required by law. The Commission has

now commenced court action over this delay. Belgium then withdrew chickens and eggs from market, then products made with eggs. They then also removed beef, pork and butter, and stopped exporting milk on order of the Commission, although it was still sold within Belgium. Analyses being conducted at the time of writing are aimed at making sure that the dioxin content of foods for human consumption is within the acceptable range.

Symptoms of toxicity became apparent for the birds, but may not have been so obvious for dairy or beef cattle or fish, (as the TEFs involved are higher for birds, and the chickens may have had a greater dose) and thus may not have been detected for some time (except by Germany, which actively monitors milk for dioxins). Routine monitoring would have caught this at an early stage.

This crisis could yet prove to be a turning-point in Europe's relationship with dioxins. For it has raised a number of questions that need to be answered

not only by the Belgian authorities, but by governments across Europe. For example; initially, despite public concern, only limited data on the dioxin content of the affected chickens were released, PCB contamination was subsequently found to account for around 80 per cent of the dioxin-like toxicity in samples, and PCDD/Fs for only about 20 per cent. Initial official statements therefore understated the risk to consumers by a factor of five. Why was this allowed to happen, and what does it say about the public's right to know what chemicals are really in their food?

Furthermore, if this incident had not occurred, would there still be an unsafe level of dioxins in animal feeds - and therefore in meat and dairy products which the public didn't know about? And did the accidental addition of transformer oil to the animal feeds simply add to PCB and dioxin levels which were already unnecessarily high?

Miriam Jacobs is an anthropologist, nutrionist and toxicologist studying for a PhD in toxicology at the University of Surrey.

Times Beach (population 2,242). Its dirt roads were (unknowingly?) sprayed with dioxin-laced oil in the early 1970s in an effort to keep down the dust. Winter floods carried this contaminated oil into homes, and residents developed illnesses similar to the Vietnam veterans.

Even here, the true facts of dioxin's effects on health were diluted, with a study being conducted on only 66 people. Many residents whose health problems could be attributed to dioxin exposure were deliberately omitted, and people like delivery men, telephone engineers and even incidental visitors to the town were included. The results, announced by Vernon Houk, caused Marilyn Leistner (the last Mayor of Times Beach) to say it was the "phoniest study in the whole world."14 In fact, the pollution was so bad that the government eventually bought out the town's 800 houses and 30 businesses for $36.7 million and demolished every building.

And such cover-up attempts are not confined to the USA. In April 1968 an explosion at the Coalite Chemical works in Bolsover, England, showered workers with dioxin. Seventynine cases of chloracne were recorded, and Dr. Jenny V Martin, Consultant Chemical Pathologist at Chesterfield Royal Hospital, was commissioned by Coalite to research the effect on the workers. After completing her study, the company told Dr. Martin that it did not wish to have the information published, and informed her of the nature of the control group used in the study. Dr. Martin realised the study had been devalued by Coalite, who had included management staff not exposed in the control population, instead of restricting it to the exposed chemical workers. Dr. Martin then arranged a second study without Coalite's involvement - and published the results of blood chemistry from eight workers suffering from chloracne

in The Lancet in February 1979. Shortly after this, her home was broken into and the medical records of the Coalite workers were stolen. Nothing else was taken.15

Depressingly, the cover-ups didn't stop there. The Coalite plant was in the news again in 1991 when random testing by the Ministry of Agriculture, Farms and Fisheries (MAFF) discovered that its on-site incinerator had released large amounts of dioxin over the surrounding countryside. This caused the milk of 27 farms to exceed the government's 'acceptable dioxin contamination' level. To deal with this problem, government experts simply raised the acceptable level of contamination by a factor of ten, thus magically 'detoxifying' the milk of 25 farms with the simple action of a pen. This 'fact-free detoxification' avoided a national scare like that in Belgium today, and kept under wraps the serious incompetence and deceit of politicians who had ignored recommendations in 1982 for an inquiry into potential dioxin pollution from the Coalite plant.

While the plant was operating without the on-site incinerator, the heavily dioxin-contaminated waste residues were kept in holding tanks on site. This waste, along with the milk from the two farms still above the 'new' acceptable contamination level, was transported along the busy M62 motorway and disposed of in a hazardous waste incinerator with a history of fires, explosions and chemical releases (as many as seven in one month) at Ellesmere Port, Cheshire.

Incineration is the main way of disposing of many plastics, oils and industrial wastes - it is also the main way that dioxins are released into the environment. Samples taken in 1989 and 1991 around a municipal waste incinerator in Winchester were kept secret by Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Pollution (HMIP) until 1994. When the results were finally made public, they

The Ecologist, Vol. 29, No 6, October 1999