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Dioxin: A Global Health Problem – Fact Sheet from NC WARN

WHAT IS DIOXIN AND WHERE IS IT FOUND?
Dioxin is one of the most potent man-made toxins currently known. It is the unavoidable byproduct of the manufacture, use and disposal of thousands of products containing chlorine, including PVC plastic, many pesticides and chlorine-bleached paper products. Various forms of dioxin and related chemicals such as PCBs, DDT, and furans are part of a group of chemicals known as endocrine-disruptors. Dioxin-like compounds are now accumulating virtually everywhere in our environment and in all of our bodies.

HOW DOES DIOXIN GET INTO OUR BODIES?
EPA estimates that 90 to 95% of our dioxin exposure comes through the food chain, primarily meats and dairy. These poisons bioaccumulate in fatty tissue and last for generations.

HOW DOES OUR FOOD CHAIN BECOME CONTAMINATED?
The leading discharge of dioxin comes from the burning of wastes containing chlorine; medical, municipal and hazardous waste incineration all create dioxin as chlorinated products are burned. Dioxin is hard to destroy at any temperature in an incinerator; in fact, these burners create dioxin from less toxic chemicals. Other releases of dioxin come from paper mills, chemical and plastic manufacturing.

HOW MUCH DIOXIN IS IN OUR BODIES?

EPA and the World Health Organization now admit that the general U.S. population already is contaminated “at or near” the level that can cause a wide variety of serious illnesses.

DO THESE DIOXIN-LIKE COMPOUNDS CAUSE CANCER IN HUMANS?
In February 1997, the International Agency for Cancer Research confirmed 2,3,7,8 TCDD Dioxin as a Class 1 carcinogen. A 1996 study by the National Research Council estimates dioxin to be 300,000 times more carcinogenic than DDT. Many cancers are associated with these organochlorines, especially soft tissue and hormone-related cancers. A 1999 German study concluded that dioxin may be responsible for 12% of all human cancers in industrialized countries.

WHAT ABOUT DISRUPTION OF THE ENDOCRINE SYSTEM?

Disruption of endocrine function (the bodies chemical messenger system) appears to occur at body levels approximately 100 times lower than those associated with cancer. International peer-approved research demonstrates that dioxin-like compounds can have transgenerational effects in wildlife and humans. Included are: reproductive illnesses such as endometriosis, fertility problems and impotence; birth defects; developmental and immune system disorders and more.

ISN’T DIOXIN THE TOXIC SUBSTANCE IN AGENT ORANGE?

Yes, thousands of Vietnamese people and U. S. soldiers were poisoned by the use of Agent Orange as a defoliant during the war. The man who ordered much of the spraying, Adm. Elmo R. Zumwalt, believes his son died due to Agent Orange. The admiral is now a strong advocate for dioxin elimination.

ARE SOME PEOPLE AT EVEN HIGHER RISK?
Scientists are most concerned about exposures to fetuses, nursing infants and children, due to the delicate balance in the developing body. Children in the U.S. are believed to receive up to 12% of their lifetime exposure to dioxin in their first year of life. People of color suffer disproportionate exposure to these chemicals, as do others who live or work near incinerators, paper mills, chemical plants and toxic dumps.

WHY HAVEN’T WE HEARD MORE ABOUT THIS ISSUE?
In 1996 the major media finally began to reflect some of the strong evidence linking dioxin with public health damage. But most corporate media is owned and controlled by the same powers that control industry, not to mention big advertising dollars. In 1991 the New York Times, which owns its own paper mills, launched a national disinformation campaign raising questions about the toxicity of dioxin.
Notice that with increasing discussion of breast cancer over the past several years, the focus remains on early detection and treatment. There is still very little discussion of the well-documented connection to toxic chemicals, despite the mounting evidence.

WHAT IS THE GOVERNMENT DOING ABOUT THIS?
In 1994 the EPA issued a draft report on its 4 year reassessment of dioxin, a study ironically called for by industry. EPA’s science now agrees with independent researchers: dioxin is even more dangerous than previously believed. However, the final version of the study — along with policy recommendations — is being withheld due to pressure from industry.

HOW IS U.S. INDUSTRY RESPONDING?
The chemical, plastic, medical and paper industries seem to be unable to look at the long term economic and public health advantages of reducing dioxin. Instead, they have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on “public relations” and political influence-buying in order to avoid dioxin-eliminating regulations. For example, significant measures proposed in 1995 by EPA to reduce pollution from medical waste incineration were badly weakened by the American Hospital Association, beaten down to a level termed “painless” by an industry spokesperson.

CAN WE LIVE WITHOUT CHLORINE?
There are viable and economically sound alternatives already being used for every major use of chlorine. European paper mills are converting to nonchlorine bleaching methods. And waste reduction—instead of incineration–in many industries has been shown to be good for jobs, industry and public health.

WHAT IS BEING DONE ABOUT THIS PROBLEM?

There is an international grassroots movement to eliminate the further production of these poisons. Some of the specifics include:

  1. Calling for the immediate halt to the incineration of medical, municipal and hazardous wastes.
  2. Calling for the paper industry to adopt non-chlorine technology for bleaching paper.
  3. Calling for reduction in use of chlorine in other industrialized processes.


WHAT CAN AN AVERAGE CITIZEN DO?

Educate yourself and others regarding this issue. Join with like-minded citizens and organizations such as NC WARN. Let the media know you want more and accurate coverage of this issue. Tell your politicians to resist the chemical industry’s big campaign dollars and to protect the public from these poisons. Lend your financial support. This issue crosses boundaries of political ideology. We must act now.

Sources: US EPA, National Cancer Institute., International Joint Commission, Citizens Dioxin Conference, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, Greenpeace Toxics Campaign.

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