Professor Maureen Sullivan
February 26, 2010
Could America Have a Zero Dioxin Future?
What Public Awareness Can Do
Every major governmental and nonprofit agency involved with environmental toxicity and/or public health agree on one thing: dioxin pose a serious health threat to humans and life. These agencies have pages of documents, laws, and code written to regulate the amount of dioxin released into our environment. Numerous nonprofit as well as government organizations have information available to the public, but most people do not seek out the information or even have an idea of what a dioxin is. Although all the major environmental and health organizations of the world have implemented laws and codes regulating dioxins, the lack of public awareness concerning dioxins causes a serious health risk in humans and wildlife because the toxins bioaccumulate in our bodies, long term exposure to the dioxins can cause cancer as well as reproductive health issues, and the support of bleached goods as well as backyard burn barrels continue to increase the toxicity of our environment. It is important that the public understands dioxin so healthier choices can be made for individuals as well as society.
A dioxin is a chlorinated organic chemical that does not occur naturally. It is created when a Chlorine based chemical (which is present in many things besides just bleach), given the right condition, is able to react with a hydrocarbon. The term dioxin comes from 2,3,7,8,-tetrachlorodibenzodioxin also known as TCDD, which was used as the chemical weapon Agent Orange in the Vietnam War. TCDD was originally detected as an unintentional byproduct created during the production of synthetic organic pesticides. Dangerous levels of dioxin in pesticides have been monitored and controlled by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) since the 1970’s, which has lead to a much needed and dramatic decrease. TCDD is the most dangerous in the family of dioxins which are also referred to as furans, PCDDs, PCDFs, PCBs and CDDs. All dioxins are measured against TCDD for their toxicity levels. Out of approximately 419 dioxins, only 30 considered highly toxic. (World Health Organization, 2007, Fact Sheet N°225) These 30 are the most dangerous chemical compounds humans are regularly exposed to.
According to a 2006 EPA study (Chlorine Chemistry Division of the American Chemistry Council, 2006 , Dioxin Source) the largest sources of dioxin release up until 1985 came from human waste incinerators. In 2000 the greatest polluter was backyard barrel burning, followed by medical waste incinerators. As of this 2006 study, the public is the greatest polluter. In most states regulations for backyard burning are lax and often not enforced, while California has very strict rules aimed specifically at burn barrels and reducing dioxin. The laws implemented by the EPA beginning in the 1970’s are the source of the fast decrease in over all dioxin levels. Between 1985 and 2000 the USA has seen a 90% decrease in dioxin levels, because of regulations and some voluntary action by industry (Chlorine Chemistry Division of the American Chemistry Council, 2006, Trends).
People are exposed to small amounts of dioxin on a daily basis. Government organizations agree that nearly every human has some level of dioxins in their body. Many health organizations have “acceptable levels” of dioxin exposure posted on their web sites, broke down either by month or year, and most often calculated depending on body weight. The term “body burden” is frequently used to describe the amount of dioxin a person can somewhat safely live with.
The danger of exposure is compounded because dioxin is slow to decompose and has a tendency to bioaccumulate in the liver and fat cells. The half-life of a dioxin in the body is normally between two and 13 years. This half-life or elimination varies because of many factors such as type of dioxin, amount of body fat, age of the person, and diet to name a few (Milbrath,2009). Virtually insoluble in water, dioxins bind to particles and organisms such as plankton and are eventually passed up the food chain while being stored in fatty tissue. Most often we ingest dioxin through consumption of fatty animal products such as meat, milk, cheese and eggs. Often, but not always, fish and beef have the highest concentrations of dioxin. The most effective study showing the decrease of dioxin since 1987 was conducted by The World Health Organization, by monitoring dioxin levels in European’s breast milk. (WHO, 2007, Who activities related to dioxins, para. 5)
The Health Risk
The health risks associated with dioxin exposure are greatest for the fetus and then up until adult body weight is reached. When body weight is low, the ratio of exposure is higher; also cells are more susceptible during development.
Dioxin also causes a wide range of non-cancer effects including reproductive, developmental, immunological, and endocrine effects in both animals and humans. Animal studies show that dioxin exposure is associated with endometriosis, decreased fertility, inability to carry pregnancies to term, lowered testosterone levels, decreased sperm counts, birth defects, and learning disabilities. In children, dioxin exposure has been associated with IQ deficits, delays in psychomotor and neurodevelopment, and altered behavior including hyperactivity. Studies in workers have found lowered testosterone levels, decreased testes size, and birth defects in offspring of Vietnam veterans exposed to Agent Orange. (The Center for Health, Environment and Justice, no date given)
Dioxins are classified as carcinogenic. The type of dioxin and the amount of contact, coupled with the length of time exposed, equates to a varying amount of cancerous probability. Some studies suggest that very low amounts of bioaccumulated dioxin over long periods can cause cancer (Cancer Weekly, 2003), while other reports claim that a low constant “body burden” is not proven to cause cancer.(EPA, 2006) Whatever the extreme may be it is important to realize that “The chronological parallelism with the appearance of dioxins in the environment suggests that these might exert biological effects at the prevailing level of exposure”( Wissing,1998).
What is the dioxin level in your back yard?
Dioxins can be disposed of by heat ranging from 700-1000 degrees Celsius, which is not reached in backyard trash burning. Home burn piles are the perfect mixing grounds for the formation of dioxins because trash often contains plastics, bleached paper, and cardboard.
Prompted in large part by concern over dioxin emissions, cities around the globe have been tightening regulations on municipal incinerators. Largely ignored have been rural households that burn their garbage in a barrel out back. A new federal study now indicates that just a handful of such fires can spew as much dioxin as a large municipal incinerator does. (Benoit, 2000).
Worldwide the amount of trash burnt at a low temperature is enormous. It is time for a large campaign, aimed at educating the public about the source and health effects concerning dioxin poisoning.
One other significant source of dioxin contamination entering our waterways is from kraft pulp and paper mill discharge. When chlorine or hypochlorite is added to pulp for making white paper, the dioxin level is very high. In the US, because of a 1990 EPA regulatory action, most pulp mills are now using chlorine dioxide or ECF (elemental chlorine free). The use of chlorine dioxide or ECF allows pulp mills to produce chlorinated bleached paper, and lowers the dioxin content of their discharge to tolerable levels by current EPA standards. Paper and pulp mills could make paper without using chlorine, which eliminates the creation of dioxin. I spoke with Nick Bennett, the staff scientist at The Natural Resources Council (NRCM) of Maine about the NRCM’s fight to eliminate all chlorine use in kraft mills. He explained that paper is an “old fashioned industry” and they have been connected to the chlorine industry for a long time. He stated simply that the “the chlorine industry does not want to lose their biggest customer.” So when the EPA introduced regulation, the paper industry and chlorine industry argued and instead of dioxin elimination, we got dioxin reduction. Bennett feels Maine tried to fight the pulp industry but lost, they did, and so did the rest of America. Another reason they got away with this “good enough” loophole, is an argument of economics. Most of the paper industry has not upgraded in many years, to do so would cost a lot of money. There is also a fear among pulp mills that if they switch to a non-chlorinated process, their product will no longer be premium.
Where to go from Here
Today you cannot buy chlorine free virgin made paper that is produced in the United States. There was a plant that produced 100% chlorine free pulp in Eureka, California, they have been going in and out of business for many years and are currently out of business, but that is another story. I see two ways the USA could eliminate dioxin from pulp and paper mills. The EPA could restrict all dioxin release or the public could become aware, increase pressure on the industry and cast a vote by only buying paper produced by non-dioxin creating technologies. As of now this limits the paper choices to 100% recycled PCF (processed chlorine free) paper. Office Depot, Office Max, Staples, and Xerox all offer PCF paper, but it is more expensive.
What product a consumer pays for is more effective in today’s society than who they vote for. The public has the purchasing power to tell the paper industry what is valued. With growing awareness and dedicated action the public can affect the paper industry and what they view as profitable. Many organizations have already committed to buying more expensive PCF paper, and reducing use to offset the cost.
The dangers of dioxin exposure are high, birth defects, immune dysfunction and cancer. There is a method to destroy dioxin; and by separating trash it is possible to not create dioxin, if people do not know this information, dioxin will continue to contaminate our lives. We have reached a point in which industry has cut back “enough” that the general public is now the largest polluter of dioxin. It is time for a public campaign to increase awareness and decrease production of dioxin in the US and around the world. Healthy lives depend on it.
Triebig, Gerhard. Werle, Egon. Päpke, Olaf. Heim, Günther. Broding, Christoph. Ludwig, Heidi. (1998) Effects of Dioxins and Furans on Liver Enzymes, Lipid Parameters, and Thyroid Hormones in Former Thermal Metal Recycling Workers. Environmental Health Perspectives,106(2),697-700. Retrieved Febuary 22, 2010, through JOSTOR database
World Health Organization (2007). Dioxins and their effects on human health. Fact Sheet N°225, Retrieved from http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs225/en/index.html
Chlorine Chemistry Division of the American Chemistry Council, (2006). Dioxin Source Contributions. DioxinFacts.org. Retrieved from http://www.dioxinfacts.org/sources_trends/sources.html
Chlorine Chemistry Division of the American Chemistry Council, (2006). Trends in Dioxin Emissions and Exposure in the United States. DioxinFacts.org. Retrieved from http://www.dioxinfacts.org/sources_trends/trends_emissions.html
Milbrath, Meghan O’Grady. (2009) Apparent Half-Lives of Dioxins, Furans, and Polychlorinated Biphenyls as a Function of Age, Body Fat, Smoking Status, and Breast-Feeding. Environmental Health Perspectives, 117(3) 422. Retrieved http://ehp.niehs.nih.gov/members/2008/11781/11781.pdf
The Center for Health, Environment and Justice, (nd). Case Study: Dioxin. Coming Clean Retrieved from http://www.chemicalbodyburden.org/cs_dioxin.htm#diox3
Cancer Weekly, (2003). Cancer Risk; Re-analysis of data finds no evidence of dioxin cancer threshold. Cancer Weekly, 40, Tuesday, October 28th Retrieved http://www.ejnet.org/dioxin/nosafedose.html
Wissing, M.(1998). Dioxins: current knowledge about health effect. NCBI, PubMed.gov 19(4)A367-71 Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9805976
Benoit, Anthony, (2000). Backyard burning is a recipe for dioxin. Science News Online, 157 January 29. Retrieved from http://environmentalet.hypermart.net/news/backyarddioxin.htm
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