Dioxins are a group of highly toxic chemical compounds that are harmful to health. They can cause problems with reproduction, development, and the immune system. They can also disrupt hormones and lead to cancer.
Known as persistent environmental pollutants (POPs), dioxins can remain in the environment for many years. They are everywhere around us.
Some countries are trying to reduce the production of dioxins in industry. In the United States (U.S.), dioxins are not produced or used commercially, but they may result as a byproduct of other processes.
In the last 30 years, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other bodies have reduced the production of dioxin levels in the U.S. by 90 percent.
However, it is not easy to eliminate dioxins. Natural sources such as volcanoes produce them, they can cross borders, and they do not break down quickly, so remnants of old dioxins still remain.
What are dioxins
Dioxins may be put into the environment by commercial waste incineration and backyard burning.
Dioxins are highly poisonous chemicals that are everywhere in the environment.
Burning processes, such as commercial or municipal waste incineration, backyard burning, and the use of fuels, such as wood, coal, or oil, produce dioxins.
The compounds then collect in high concentrations in soils and sediments. Plants, water, and air all contain low levels of dioxins.
When dioxins enter the food chain, they are stored in animal fats. Over 90 percent of human exposure to dioxins comes through food, mainly animal products, such as dairy, meat, fish, and shellfish.
Once consumed, dioxins can stay in the body for a long time. They are stable chemicals, which means they do not break down. Once in the body, it may take between 7 and 11 years for a dioxin’s radioactivity to fall to half its original level.
Volcanoes, forest fires, and other natural sources have always given off dioxins, but in the 20th century, industrial practices have caused the levels to rise dramatically.
Human activities that produce dioxins include:
burning household trash
chlorine bleaching of pulp and paper
production of pesticides and herbicides and other chemical processes
dismantling and recycling electronic products
Cigarette smoke also contains small amounts of dioxins.
Drinking water can contain dioxins if it has been contaminated by chemical waste from factories, or by other industrial processes.
Sometimes, a major contamination occurs.
In 2008, contaminated animal feed led to pork products from Ireland containing over 200 times the permitted levels of dioxins.
In 1999, illegal disposal of an industrial oil caused animal feed and animal-based food products from Belgium and some other countries to be contaminated.
In 1976, an industrial accident led to a cloud of toxic chemicals, including dioxins, affecting thousands of people in Italy.
In 2004, Viktor Yushchenko, President of the Ukraine, was intentionally poisoned with dioxins.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), most reported cases of dioxin contamination occur in industrialized nations where there is a system of monitoring and reporting. In other places, high dioxin levels may go unreported.
Low-level exposure to dioxins may be possible through contact with air that has trace amounts.
Most of the population experiences low-level exposure to dioxins, mainly through diet.
Lower exposure is possible through contact with air, soil, or water.
This can happen when a person:
breathes in vapor or air that contains trace amounts
accidentally ingests soil that contains dioxins
absorbs dioxins through skin contact with air, soil, or water
Dioxins in tampons and water bottles
Concerns have been raised about dioxins in women’s sanitary products, especially tampons.
Before the late 1990s, chlorine was used for bleaching in tampon production, and dioxin levels were higher. Chlorine bleaching is no longer used.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) notes that while traces of dioxins exist in tampons, regular tampon use would provide less than 0.2 percent of a woman’s recommended maximum intake of dioxins for a month.
It has also been claimed that plastic water bottles contain dioxins, but experts say this is not true.
They warn, however, that water bottles contain BPA phthalates, which can lead to hormonal and endocrine problems, and possibly reproductive issues as well.