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The Dirt on Dioxins

June 14, 2012
Emissions from waste incineration cause a wide range of health issues, for humans and for the environment.

Greenpeace activists were able to shut down Britain’s largest waste incinerator back in 2001, which had been exceeding pollution regulations

Think of car exhaust. Many of us drive to the store, to work or to school every day without considering what is exiting out the tailpipe. Are we aware of the chemicals released into the air? Do we know how they affect our environment or our health? No, we don’t worry about it. Global climate change is the problem we’ve heard about over and over again, but it’s not the only issue. There are other concerns with car exhaust that aren’t frequently mentioned. Let’s talk about some little-known pollutants called dioxins that you’re probably breathing in every day or eating in your grilled cheese sandwich.

Dioxins (full name: polychlorinated dibenzo-p-dioxins) are one of several known persistent organic pollutants (POPs)—toxic chemicals that resist degradation in the environment by natural processes. Massive birth defects, endocrine system disruption, weakened immune system and cancers are only a few of the known effects of dioxin exposure.

Dioxins have no known uses, and are not produced commercially anywhere in the world. Even still, they are accidentally produced in many ways through industrial practices and burning. They also occur naturally from wood burning and volcanic eruptions.

Toxin accumulation in the food chain.

Toxin accumulation in the food chain. Polar bears in this system are the most affected.

Problematic anthropogenic sources of dioxins:

  • Car emissions and burning fossil fuels
  • Chlorine bleaching of paper products
  • Pesticide manufacture
  • Garbage and medical waste incineration

Water that is polluted with dioxins is a starting point for catastrophe. There is a dramatic increase in the amount of dioxins in animal bodies as you climb up the food chain. The transfer of harmful chemicals like dioxins from smaller animals to larger ones occurs through predation.The smaller organisms (little fish and plankton) remain largely unaffected while the toxins accumulate in bodytissues of top predator species—sharks, tuna, whales and birds of prey—where they build up over time.

As a result, top predator populations are suffering (don’t forget—humans included). Contrary to popular belief, predators like sharks are necessary for healthy habitats, but dioxins are causing dangerous declines in these critical populations. The International Programme of Chemical Safety reports:

“Exposure to persistent organic pollutants has been correlated with population declines in a number of marine mammals including the common seal (Reijnders, 1986) the harbour porpoise, bottle- nosed dolphins (Duinker, 1985) and beluga whales from the St. Lawrence River (Martineau et al., 1987).”

Dioxin exposure and associated problems should be of critical concern to us. For decades we’ve known that dioxins and POPs in the environment are bad, but why haven’t we taken bigger steps to find a solution? Let’s not wait until it is too late to do something!

  • Consume fewer products, compost and recycle so that waste incineration is not necessary.
  • Be conscious about chlorine bleached paper products.
  • Be aware of the pesticides that may be on your food.
  • Use fewer plastic products. The manufacture of such things can release dioxins, and also burning plastics releases a handful of terrible pollutants into the atmosphere—dioxins included. (See my triumph over plastic packaging)
  • Minimize your fossil fuel usage. Walk, bike and unplug your electronics!

We all can make a difference to improve human an environmental health.

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