February 22nd, 2012
08:55 AM ET
Nearly three decades in the making, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently announced its landmark dioxin assessment with the conclusion: “Generally, over a person’s lifetime, current exposure to dioxins does not pose a significant health risk.”
But Dr. Arnold J. Schecter, a University of Texas professor of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences, says dioxins pose a risk for fetuses, newborns and people with immune deficiencies such as AIDS patients.
“Some people are going to be more susceptible because they receive a higher dose or they’re more sensitive,” says Dr. Schecter, who served on an EPA advisory panel on dioxins.
Dioxins are a class of highly toxic chemicals released into the environment by industrial production, waste incineration and forest fires. The chemicals get into the food chain and accumulate in animal fat.
Air emissions of dioxins in the United States have decreased 90% since 1987, thanks to the EPA, state and industry efforts, the agency said Friday. Even so, some dioxins are now present in every man, woman and child on the planet.
The EPA characterizes dioxins as “likely” carcinogens. They are also linked to developmental and reproductive problems, damage to the immune system, hormone disruption, skin rashes and discoloration, and mild liver damage.
Fetuses and newborns have diets relatively high in fat and their bodies are still developing, putting them at greater risk for health problems related to dioxins, Schecter says, as are people whose immune systems are already compromised.
Animal fat in the diet accounts for close to 90% of dioxin exposure in the United States, according to a 2003 National Academies of Science report on dioxins in the food supply.
With the new assessment, the EPA set the threshold for safe dioxin exposure at a toxicity equivalence (TEQ) of 0.7 picograms per kilogram of body weight per day.
Stephen Lester, science director for the Center for Health Environment & Justice, says young children may routinely be exposed to higher levels through their diets.
Lester points to the National Academies report, which found the average 1 to 5 year old's diet contained 1.09 TEQ. Boys and girls 6 to 11 years old averaged .69 TEQ.
“The EPA has mentioned that the levels in the air are going down and we’ve made great improvements and that we’ve got the problem under control, but that’s not what’s going on here,” Lester says.
Research published in 2009 put the average TEQ exposure for all Americans at .54 TEQ, assuming an average body weight of 165 pounds.
Dioxins cannot be washed off foods. Eating less or leaner meat, chicken and fish; low-fat or fat-free cheese and yogurt; and drinking skim milk will lower the dioxin content of the typical American diet, Schecter says.
“We’re lucky. The same thing that’s good for protecting our hearts and our brains from heart attacks and strokes will also protect us from the toxic effects of dioxins."
In addition to cutting fat out of the diet, CHEJ also recommends eating grain or grass fed beef. Lester says some cattle are given feed that contains animal fat, essentially recycling the dioxins.
The EPA says the amount of dioxin in food will go decline as dioxin levels in the environment go down.
The Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture monitor dioxin in food and feed. A USDA survey of dioxins in meat is expected to be released in 2013.
"Given the success of the current dioxin reduction program, and the low levels of risk posed for consumers, additional regulatory changes by USDA or recommendations to avoid particular foods are unwarranted at this time," a USDA spokesperson said in a statement to CNN.
The 344-page EPA dioxin assessment looked only at non-cancer risks. A second report on dioxins' cancer risks will follow. No date has been set.
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