What are dioxins and why are they in my eggs?

If you’ve been looking at the news headlines these days, and got past the blood-and-gore sections (the gunman shooting at politicians and innocent civilians in Arizona, the Iranian plane crash, the French hostages killed in Niger, the dozen headless bodies found in Acapulco), then you probably noticed something about a huge disruption in the meat export from Germany due to something called dioxin. Another meat recall, you might think. What’s it this time? E. coli? Salmonella? Mad cow disease? Swine flu? These are all pretty much household terms by now because the food industry, in its wondrous efforts towards complete vertical and horizontal integration, has opened the flood gates for bacteria and viruses such as these to spread like wildfire around the world. (I know, I mixed a flooding metaphor with a fire metaphor, just go with it!) I recently asked some of my colleagues if they had heard of this news story, some had, some hadn’t, and those that had did not know what dioxin really was, they just knew it was something that shouldn’t be in our food.

Pig: I made this a swineflu year, and you? (Photo credit: fr.toonpool.com)

But, in fact, it is in our food. Very much so. But I can understand my colleague’s lack of complete information. The majority of news articles talk only of the dioxin that contaminated animal feed from a feed maker plant in Germany. If you dig a little deeper, you might see a one-liner about how dioxin is produced during industrial processes and waste burning. And maybe a tag-on about how dioxin is linked to cancer. For me, who knows exactly what dioxin is, the questions I’m after are not being answered. How on earth could dioxin contaminate this feed? Where did this dioxin come from and how did it come in contact with animal feed? And most importantly, isn’t an “acceptable level” of a known toxin a kind of ridiculous concept? If an acceptable level of dioxin in an egg is set, that doesn’t say anything about how many eggs a person should eat, or how much milk that contains traces of dioxin, or how much pork that also contains traces of dioxin. If each specific product has an “acceptable” level of contamination, does that really take into account the total amount a person may be ingesting through a variety of pathways? Personally? I don’t find ingesting any level of a toxin acceptable. Short-term exposure to high levels of dioxins have been shown to cause skin lesions and altered liver function. Chronic exposure of lower doses is linked to impairment of the immune system, the developing nervous system, the endocrine system and reproductive functions. Long-term exposure of animals to dioxins has resulted in several types of cancer. Based on animal data and on human epidemiology data, dioxin was classified by International Agency for Research on Cancer as a known human carcinogen.

So, first, let’s go over what dioxin is. Then we’ll talk about how they got into the eggs, dairy, and other meat that we consume. Dioxins are a group of chemically-related compounds….are you ready for some chemistry? The chemical name for dioxin is: 2,3,7,8- tetrachlorodibenzo para dioxin (TCDD). The name “dioxins” is often used for the family of structurally and chemically related polychlorinated dibenzo para dioxins (PCDDs) and polychlorinated dibenzofurans (PCDFs). So….what are they? They are byproducts of industrial processes and waste incineration. They are formed during a chemical reaction when the organic compounds react with chlorinated materials. They are formed during metal smelting and refining processes, and during chemical manufacturing, such as paper production and pesticide manufacturing. Once created – as the unintentional byproduct of our Industrial era – these dioxins remain in the environment in various “storage reservoirs.” The atmosphere is a temporary reservoir because they soon precipitate and fall to the earth’s surface, where they are stored in soil and sediment.

The pathway that brings dioxin into the human food web seems quite simple. In the book, Dioxins and Dioxin-like Compounds in the Food Supply: Strategies to Decrease Exposure, there is a nifty diagram that depicts how dioxin enters the human food supply. The arrow moves dioxin from the Environment to Harvested Forage, etc., to Animal Feed; or from Forage to Terrestrial Animals to Animal Fats/Products to Animal Feed. But this, and none of the accompanying text, really explain how dioxin gets from the factory where it is produced into our scrambled eggs. It took a bit of digging, but I eventually discovered that plants generally do not absorb dioxin. However, dioxin, like the recent rash of plummeting birds, is falling from the sky, and where it lands is typically where it stays. So let’s say it lands on a nice corn field. Then that corn is destined to become animal feed, and let’s say that it does. Then these animals, or parts of them, are further made into animal feed (yes, of course this happens). Well, the dioxins have accumulated in the fats of these animals, and so as these rendered animals are then fed to other animals, the dioxin becomes even more concentrated. That is the way dioxin works.

Did you know that dioxin was the primary toxic component of Agent Orange, the herbicide used widely in Vietnam that later resulted in thousands of horrible birth defects? (Photo credit: Vietnam News Agency)

Dioxin is a persistent organic pollutant. That means it just won’t go away, it doesn’t degrade in any reasonable period of time. That means that if we don’t want this stuff in our environment, then we need to stop producing it. It’s really that simple. We put it in the environment, and then it’s coming back to haunt us. Not so shocking, is it? The latest report is that Germany is planning on slaughtering hundreds of pigs that have been found to contain high levels of dioxins. What they don’t say is what they will be doing with these pigs after slaughtering them, because that really does not solve the problem. The dioxins will not go away that easily! This is not the first time dioxins have been recorded in our food system at appreciable levels; the World Health Organization lists a few other cases here. Apart from stopping the production of dioxin, there is very little else we can do to prevent dioxin from entering our food chain. However, this recent issue once again highlights some of the problems associated with large, industrialized food chains. If we had more strong local farms supporting their surrounding communities, these tainted German eggs would not have made it to the UK via Holland. Shorter food chains makes tracking food and feed supplies easier and prevents any serious problems from spreading too far. So support your local farmers! (And perhaps eat less meat and dairy products if you want to play it safe.)

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