31 July 1997 Edition

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Dioxin - no safe level

Robert Allen urges caution on EPA reassurances

Dioxin, that most ubiquitous manmade poison, was declared a Class A cause of a cancer by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a World Health Organization body, in February this year.

Now it seems that the US government has found evidence of dioxin contamination in chickens, eggs, and farm-raised catfish, and has banned the shipment of chickens and eggs from hundreds of producers. The chicken-and-egg ban was announced July 8 and went into effect July 13.

The source of the dioxin in chickens, eggs, and catfish is reported to be a contaminated soybean-based feed produced by two companies - Riceland Foods, Inc., and Quincy Soybean Co. - both located in Arkansas.

Between them, these two companies send feed to 350 customers, providing an estimated 1% of all animal feed in the US. Companies can sell their chickens and eggs again as soon as they demonstrate that dioxin levels in their products are below one part per trillion (ppt).

Until now, the US has never set standards for dioxin in food. The one-part-per-trillion standard was set by the US Food and Drug

Adminstration as a ``level of concern'' for this single instance of dioxin contamination of animal feed. It is not to be taken as a ``general action level for dioxin in foods,'' US government officials have emphasized.

In essence, FDA has declared that chickens and eggs are contaminated and unfit for human consumption if they contain more than 1 ppt dioxin.

The US Environmental Protection Agency began looking for dioxin in food in the early 1990s, as part of the agency's ongoing dioxin reassessment. In early drafts of its dioxin reassessment report, EPA said 95% of human exposure to dioxins occurs chiefly through eating red meat, fish, and dairy products. This prompted more US government studies of dioxin in cheese, fish, pork and chicken.

Now we wouldn't want you to get concerned about this news from Amerika. You see, according to our government, there isn't much dioxin in the Irish environment to be worried about. But then again there hasn't been much of an attempt to learn exactly how much dioxin there is in the Irish environment. By their own admission the EPA attempted ``to remedy this deficiency'' by inviting the esteemed Christoffer Rappe of UmeƄ University to analyse cow's milk in the summer of 1995. Twenty samples

were taken from full milk silos in regional creameries around the

country. Further samples were taken from areas which the EPA perceived to be ``potential dioxin sources''. Not surprisingly the EPA investigation was not able to report that Ireland is ``dioxin free'' but they were able to report that the levels ``in the environment in Ireland are low when compared with other European countries''. So while the EPA has recommended a further study we should sleep sound in our beds knowing

that dioxin levels in Ireland are ``very low'' - too low we must presume then to cause harm!

That means, of course, that Irish people are not suffering from dioxin's most powerful effects which are seen in the reproductive system, the endocrine (hormone) system and the immune system. Irish mothers need not concern themselves that their newborn children may have been exposed to dioxin while in the womb.

Still we think you should know what the US EPA wrote in 1992 about dioxin:

``In mammals, postnatal functional alterations involving learning behaviour and the developing reproductive system appear to be the developmental events most sensitive to perinatal dioxin exposure. The developing immune system may also be highly sensitive.''

The problem we have with dioxin levels is the evidence that is slowly mounting which suggests there is no safe level for dioxin, which means that only time will tell whether the EPA's confidence in Ireland's ``low'' levels is justified and that Irish people will not suffer the adverse affects of dioxin poisoning. Given that Irish people consume large quantities of Irish milk, which the EPA admits is contaminated with dioxin (albeit at point-five part per trillion in fat), we would urge everyone to question those in authority who would presume to tell us that these ``low'' levels are having no effect at all on our health.

An Phoblacht
44 Parnell Sq.
Dublin 1