This pamphlet provides answers to basic
questions about dioxins. It will explain what dioxins are, where they can be
found, how they can affect your health, and what you can do to prevent or
reduce exposure to them.
WHAT ARE DIOXINS AND WHERE ARE THEY
Dioxins are a group of chemicals formed during
the burning of household and industrial waste. They also are formed during the
making of some herbicides and germicides, and the bleaching of paper pulp.
Dioxins also can be found as contaminants in polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB)
mixtures. Dioxins were an unwanted by-product of the manufacture of PCBs, which
was outlawed in 1978. PCB mixtures are commonly found in electrical capacitors,
fluorescent light ballasts and transformers made before 1978. The burning of
PCBs can produce dioxins. The use of products containing dioxins has been
greatly reduced in the last few decades.
HOW MANY DIOXINS GET INTO THE
The burning of industrial or household waste
can produce dioxins and release them into the air. Soils near burn areas also
may be contaminated with dioxins. When PCBs were still in use, dioxins found
their way into some bodies of water. Rainwater carried herbicides containing
dioxins from farm fields into surface waters, and some factories discharged
dioxin-contaminated waste directly into surface water. In lakes, rivers,
streams and ponds, dioxins tend to settle to the bottom and cling to solid
materials such as mud or clay (sediment).
Since, dioxins last a very long time in the
environment before breaking down, they may eventually find their way into the
food chain. Dioxins are easily absorbed by the body and are stored in fatty
tissue. For this reason, dioxins are slowly eliminated from the body.
HOW CAN I BE EXPOSED TO DIOXINS?
Dioxins can enter the body by eating or
drinking contaminated food, through the air we breathe or by skin contact. Most
people are exposed to dioxins by eating contaminated fish, meats and dairy
products. Because freshwater fish (such as catfish, buffalo or carp) may ingest
sediments containing dioxins and retain the dioxin in their body fat, they tend
to have the highest dioxin levels. Only small amounts of dioxins are taken up
by plants from the soil, so amounts in grazing animals and dairy products are
generally lower than in fish. Dust contaminated with dioxins may be found on
the outer surfaces of fruits and vegetables.
Dioxins do not readily dissolve in water, so
exposure to them from contaminated water is not of concern. People are
generally not exposed to dioxins in surface waters unless they contact
contaminated sediments. The extremely small levels of dioxins in bleached paper
products, such as disposable diapers, facial or toilet tissue, and paper
towels, are not considered dangerous to people.
Some workers may be exposed to dioxins during
the manufacture of some herbicides, germicides or solvents. Waste incinerator
workers and persons who burn household waste may come in contact with dioxins
in ash, soil, gases or smoke. Industrial accidents have been responsible for
most cases of dioxin poisoning in humans. Firefighters and cleanup crews
responding to electrical system fires, as well as hazardous waste accidents,
also may be exposed to dioxins.
HOW CAN DIOXINS AFFECT MY HEALTH?
Dioxins are extremely toxic to some animal
species, but are much less toxic to others. The toxicity of dioxins to humans
is uncertain. In people, dioxins can cause chloracne -- small, pale,
yellow skin lesions that may last from weeks to years. Dioxins also can cause
short-term changes in the activity of the liver, but without any visible
symptoms. These liver changes are similar to those resulting from the
consumption of alcoholic beverages.
While dioxins can cause nerve damage in
animals, studies have not shown that dioxins cause nerve damage in humans.
Birth defects, increased spontaneous abortions and damage to the immune
system have been observed in animals, but these
effects have not been seen in people exposed to dioxins.
Large amounts of dioxins given over a short
period of time can cause cancer in certain animals. In light of this, the
United States Environmental Protection Agency has classified dioxins as
probable human carcinogens (cancer-causing chemicals). However, there is
no evidence that dioxins cause cancer at the low levels normally found in the
environment. Since dioxins occur as impurities in other chemicals, it is
difficult to determine whether dioxins actually cause any adverse health
effects. Adverse health effects may result from the chemicals that contain
dioxins and not from the dioxins themselves.
HOW CAN I REDUCE MY EXPOSURE TO
Exposure to dioxins can be minimized by
following the Guide to Eating Illinois Sport Fish, available from the
Illinois Environmental Protection Agency. Copies are available by calling 217-
782-3362. This guide tells what fish you should eat and how to prepare the fish
for eating. Because dioxins accumulate in fish fat, people can reduce their
intake of dioxins by removing the skin and fatty areas from fish filets. Do not
fry fish. Barbecue, broil, or bake fish on an elevated rack that allows fat to
drip away. Throw away the drippings. You can also poach fish as long as you
throw away the broth.
Other ways to avoid exposure to dioxins include
washing fruits and vegetables before eating and not breathing smoke and vapors
given off by burning household waste.
WHERE CAN I GET MORE INFORMATION?
Illinois Department of Public Health
Division of Environmental Health
525 W. Jefferson St.
Springfield, IL 62761
TTY (hearing impaired use only) 800-547-0466
This pamphlet was supported in part by funds
from the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act
trust fund through a cooperative agreement with the Agency for Toxic Substances
and Disease Registry, Public Health Service, U.S. Department of Health and