You may have heard the term without realizing its impact, so let’s start by answering the obvious question: what is dioxin?
Dioxin is a hormone-disrupting, cancer- and diabetes-causing toxic chemical now found in humans all over the world. Dioxin is formed during many industrial processes when chlorine or bromine is burned in the presence of carbon and oxygen. Dioxin and dioxin-like compounds (like PCBs) are part of a group of chemicals classified as persistent organic pollutants (POPs). POPs are major environmental contaminants and pollutants that resist degradation and therefore persist in the environmental and build up in the food chain.
How Are Humans Exposed to Dioxins?
Dioxins are the unintended byproducts of a variety of industrial processes including waste incineration, metal smelting, chlorine paper bleaching, and pesticide manufacturing. Dioxin and dioxin-like compounds are now ubiquitous in soils, sediments, air, and water and are found even in very remote locations, such as Antarctica. While many Americans believe that dioxin pollution is no longer actively occurring, the truth is that dioxin contamination continues to be widespread; this includes contamination in the U.S. where release of dioxins increased by 18 percent between 2009 and 2010, according to a recent inventory.
Dioxin Exposure from Food Sources
All Americans have dioxins stored in their bodies. This is mostly due to our contaminated food supply. Dioxins build up in the food chain by accumulating in the tissues of animals, especially in fat. Meat, fish, milk, eggs, butter and other foods Americans eat daily all contain dioxins. The Environmental Working Group concluded in 2010 that the general public can be exposed to up to 1,200 times more dioxin than EPA scientists have considered safe for cancer risk.
Scientists are particularly concerned about the fact that human breast milk contains dioxins in amounts similar to highly contaminated foods such as beef, cheese and fish. This means newborns exposure to dioxins is much greater than that of children and adults. The Environmental Working Group found that the amount of dioxin a nursing infant consumes daily is up to 77 times higher than the level EPA has proposed to protect the endocrine and immune systems from dioxin toxicity. As you will see below, adverse impacts of dioxins on children’s health are of great concern.
What Is Dioxin Toxicity? The Frightening Health Consequences
Because dioxins accumulate in the food chain, they can have serious effects on human health. At excessively high levels and/or over extended periods of time, dioxins can impair fertility and child development, attack the immune system and the nervous system, and cause cancer.
Long-term studies in victims of dioxin exposure accidents found higher rates of diabetes and cancer, excess deaths from cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, altered thyroid hormone status, and greater susceptibility to infectious diseases.
Early-life exposure has been linked to neurological alterations, including effects on hearing, psychomotor function, cognition, and gender-specific behaviors; effects on the reproductive organs; and hormonal changes. In men, exposure to low levels of dioxin in the womb and early in life can decrease sperm quality and lower the sperm count during the prime reproductive years.
How to Avoid Dioxin Toxicity
- Avoiding exposure is difficult because of its ongoing release by various industries which has resulted in wide contamination of the American food supply. The worse food offenders are animal products including meat, fish, milk, eggs and butter. You can cut down on your exposure by eating fewer animal products.
- In addition to eating a plant-based diet, you can help protect your body from the ravages of dioxin toxicity by making small, daily diet and lifestyle choices that boost your body’s immune and detoxification systems. We can all choose to live in a way that enhances detoxification and immune health by choosing fresh, organic foods as often as possible. We can eat plenty of raw and lightly cooked vegetables, including fresh vegetable juices, sprouts, leafy vegetables, cruciferous vegetables from the cabbage family (cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, kohlrabi, kale, mustard greens, lettuce, beet green, chard, collard, bok choy, endive, etc.), and garlic (1-4 cloves) daily.
- And finally, let’s not forget to drink plenty of filtered water, make sure our bowels are moving daily, and sweat a lot!
Although exposure is almost impossible to avoid, we can prevent dioxin toxicity by avoiding these high exposure foods and by making sure our natural detoxification systems are working effectively. Rather than fretting over things you cannot control, concentrate on the things you can!
The World Health Organization (WHO) gives us this list of key facts on dioxin:
- Dioxins are a group of chemically related compounds that are persistent environmental pollutants (POPs).
- Dioxins are found throughout the world in the environment and they accumulate in the food chain, mainly in the fatty tissue of animals.
- More than 90 percent of human exposure is through food, mainly meat and dairy products, fish, and shellfish. Many national authorities have programs in place to monitor the food supply.
- Dioxins are highly toxic and can cause reproductive and developmental problems, damage the immune system, interfere with hormones, and also cause cancer.
- Due to the omnipresence of dioxins, all people have background exposure, which is not expected to affect human health. However, due to the highly toxic potential, efforts need to be undertaken to reduce current background exposure.
- Prevention or reduction of human exposure is best done via source-directed measures—i.e., strict control of industrial processes to reduce formation of dioxins.
For more, visit the WHO page on dioxin by clicking here.
 Environmental Working Group
 J Appl Toxicol. 2013 Jan;33(1):1-8.
Originally posted in 2014, this post is regularly updated.