This toxic chemical called Dioxin

To come up with “win-win” solutions to the garbage crisis the country is facing, adopting new technologies that will use trash to generate electricity has been resorted to. But doing so “may end up poisoning the environment.”

“Unless safe technologies are installed and environmental managers execute monitoring protocols, these solutions will inevitably produce dioxins,” wrote Kimberlie Quitasol in a news report, which was published by Philippine Daily Inquirer.

Her source of information was Dr. Jorge Emmanuel, the former consultant on health-care waste projects of the United Nations Development Program and now Silliman University professor, who was one of the speakers of the recent State of Nature Assessment conference held in Baguio City.

“We in public health have been pushing for more regulations, showing evidence that these dioxins are so problematic,” Emmanuel pointed out in his speech.

The Department of Environment and Natural Resources has included dioxin as one of the members of the “dirty dozen club”—a special group of dangerous chemicals known as persistent organic pollutants, or POPs.  “It is the nastiest, most toxic man-made organic chemical; its toxicity is second only to radioactive waste,” says chemical experts.

Science tells us dioxin is the name generally given to a class of super-toxic chemicals, the chlorinated dioxins and furans, formed as a by-product of the manufacture, molding or burning of organic chemicals and plastics that contain chlorine.

“In terms of dioxin release into the environment, solid-waste incinerators are the worst culprits due to incomplete combustion,” says the Geneva-based World Health Organization (WHO).

Dioxin made headlines several years ago at places such as Love Canal, Niagara Falls in the United States, where hundreds of families needed to abandon their homes due to dioxin contamination, and Times Beach, a town in Missouri that was also abandoned as a result of dioxin effluence.

In 1997 there was a news report of dioxin contamination of food that occurred in the southern part of the United States in 1997.  Chickens, eggs and catfish were contaminated with dioxin when a contaminated ingredient was used in the manufacture of animal feed.

Now, it takes a good chemist or a person with good memory to remember dioxin’s proper name: 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-para-dioxin (TCDD).  The name dioxin is also used for the family of structurally and chemically related polychlorinated dibenzo-para-dioxins, polychlorinated dibenzofurans, and the certain polychlorinated biphenyls.  So far, about 419 types of dioxin-related compounds have been identified, but only about 30 of these are considered to have significant toxicity, with TCDD being the most lethal.

In 1976 TCCD was cited to be the culprit of a serious accident that happened at a chemical factory in Seveso, Italy.  A cloud of toxic chemicals, including dioxins, was released into the air and eventually contaminated an area of 15 square kilometers with a population of 37,000 people.

According to the UN health agency, dioxins are found throughout the world in practically all media—including air, soil, water, sediment and food, especially dairy products (milk and cheese), meat, fish and shellfish.  The highest levels of these compounds are found in some soils, sediments and animals.  Very low levels are found in water and air.

So, why there is much ado about dioxin?  The WHO points out: “Once dioxins have entered the environment or body, they are there to stay due to their uncanny ability to dissolve in fats and to their rock-solid chemical stability.  Their half-life in the body is, on average, seven years.  In the environment, dioxins tend to bio-accumulate in the food chain.  The higher in the food chain one goes, the higher is the concentration of dioxins.”

Studies have shown that dioxin exhibits serious health effects when it reaches as little as a few parts per trillion in our body fat.  Short-term exposure of humans to high levels of dioxin may result in skin lesions, such as chloracne patchy darkening of the skin, and altered liver function.

Dioxin is a potent cancer-causing agent, health specialists claim. The 1994 US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) draft reassessment for dioxin’s effects estimated that the levels of dioxin-like compounds found in the general population might cause a lifetime cancer risk between one in 10,000 to one in 1,000.  This is 100 to 1000 times higher than the risk level of 1 in a million that is deemed acceptable in certain regulations.

Dioxin also causes reproductive and developmental effects in animals at very low doses. “Dioxin exposure damages the immune system, leading to increased susceptibility to infectious disease,” studies said.  “It can disrupt the proper function of hormones—chemical messengers that the body uses for growth and regulation.”

Dioxin has likewise been linked to a wide spectrum of health effects, including diabetes, testicular atrophy, birth defects, endometriosis and problems with cognitive development. Linda Birnbaum, an American dioxin researcher, describes dioxin as “growth disregulators—the most potent ones we know.”

Unknowingly, each of us has some amount of dioxin in our body.  This is because dioxin, like DDT, does not readily break down in the environment.  It also accumulates in our body. Continual low-level exposure leads to a “buildup” in our body tissues.

According to EPA, over 90 percent of human exposure occurs through diet, primarily foods derived from animals.

Those living near the areas where trashe is burned, watch out.  Orlando S. Mercado, during his stint as chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment, said: “Dioxin is known to travel significant distance as part of the emission of incinerators.”

Meanwhile, Sen. Loren B. Legarda urged local government units to effectively manage solid waste in their localities as Republic Act 9003, better known as the ecological solid waste management law, mandates it.

“The measure aims to create a clean and healthy environment using a system of solid-waste management that starts with segregation of garbage at its source, segregated transportation, processing, treatment and proper disposal of solid waste. It emphasizes on recycling so that less garbage is actually brought to the sanitary landfill, and those brought to the final disposal site are effectively maintained,” Legarda said.

Image Credits: Captain Kimo on Visual hunt / CC BY-NC-ND

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