Toxic Tuesdays

CHEJ highlights several toxic chemicals and the communities fighting to keep their citizens safe from harm.

Dioxin in Food

Dioxins are a group of chemically related compounds formed as a byproduct of industrial processes such as water treatment, paper manufacturing, and waste incineration. If dioxins are not properly captured and stored, they can be released into the environment. Once released into the air, dioxins can travel thousands of miles. They can also attach to soil particles on the ground and sediment in bodies of water. Because dioxins are slow to decompose, they can persist in the environment for years after being released. One of the reasons this is a problem is because dioxins bioaccumulate in animal tissues, meaning if fish or livestock become exposed to dioxins, they accumulate in the animals. Then, when humans eat these contaminated animal products, we can be exposed to high levels of dioxins. This makes dioxins in food a particularly dangerous and widespread method of dioxin exposure.

Dioxin exposure is associated with a wide variety of health problems including a skin disease called chloracne, liver damage, thyroid dysfunction, diabetes, and immune system dysfunction. The International Agency for Research on Cancer has determined that several types of dioxins cause cancer. It is suspected that dioxins may also cause reproductive damage, birth defects, and miscarriages because it can be passed from a pregnant person to their fetus. Because of their small size and the importance of proper development, dioxin exposure is particularly dangerous for infants and children.

With these serious health effects, dioxin exposure through eating contaminated meat, dairy, and fish is a concern. Washing and cooking food does not remove the dioxins from them. Individuals can protect themselves by eating healthy diets that prioritize vegetables, fruits, and whole grains while decreasing meat consumption. (This is the kind of diet you would eat by following the Food Pyramid). When eating meat, choose products low in fat where animals have been grain or grass fed. If you catch your own seafood, be sure to check local fishing advisories.

While these steps can help keep us safe, the federal government should do more to regulate our food supply and ensure it is free of dioxins. In 2003 the National Academies of Science released a report on dioxins in the food supply and recommended strategies for reducing risk of dioxin exposure through food. These included interrupting the dioxin cycling that occurs in large-scale livestock husbandry, improving coordination between agencies that monitor food for dioxins, and specifically protecting people of childbearing age because of the risk to fetuses and newborns. Implementing these strategies through regulations and public education campaigns would go a long way toward protecting people from dioxin exposure through food.

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