Even in miniscule amounts, dioxin has disastrous effects on humans

Dioxin has been a cause for concern all over the world and it recently came into prominence after it was found in food products in Belgium. S K Wangnoo , former head of endocrinology department at the Institute of Medical Sciences, Srinagar, and currently senior consultant endocrinologist and diabetologist at the Apollo Hospital, New Delhi, spoke to Lian Chawii about the ill effects of dioxin on human health

Published: Wednesday 15 September 1999

What are the anthropogenic factors leading to the increase of dioxin in the environment?
The biggest source of dioxin is the pulp and paper and petrochemical industries, and incinerators. The pulp and paper industry uses bleaching agents like chlorine which are major contributors of dioxin.

Are the incidences of abnormalities rising today?
There certainly has been an increase in the number of patients with dioxin-related sicknesses. Tests in human tissues and lake sediments show that the current generation has much higher levels of dioxin than in the previous century.

How does dioxin enter the human body?
Dioxin is one of the most toxic human-made chemicals ever known. Even in miniscule amounts, it has disastrous effects on the human body's hormone system.It is a "catch-all" term for three acutely toxic chemical groups -- true dioxin, furans and polychlorinated biphenyls. It enters the human body through contaminated water and food, and contact with the environment and soil.

How does it accumulate and increase within the body?
They accumulate in the tissues of living organisms and get more concentrated as they move up the food chain and start concentrating in fats. Over 90 per cent of our dioxin exposure comes from eating meat, fish and poultry products. These animals accumulate the toxic compound in their body by feeding on plants that contain dioxin which, in turn, grow on dioxin-contaminated soil. Its content is very high in meat, fish and dairy products but not in grains and vegetables because it attaches itself strongly to fatty tissues. Even, low-fat fish has high levels of dioxin because fish feed on invertebrates and other fish that also contain high levels of the compound.

What are the effects of exposure to dioxin on human beings?
Bio-chemical studies have clearly shown that dioxin act as powerful "environmental hormones". Like the body's natural hormone, dioxin can cross cell membranes and alter the activity of genes that regulate the body's processes of development and self-maintenance. A molecule of any dioxin-like compound can bind itself to a specific receptor protein within the cell. This complex compound then enters the cell nucleus and interacts with the dna to interfere, confuse and disrupt natural body systems like hormones, immunological and neurological systems.

What are the environmental factors affecting growth hormones today ?
There are many environmental factors, such as water and air pollution that affect the modulations of the hormones receptors and growth factors. These interfere with the development of other immune systems of the body. It can even lead to birth defects, foetal deaths, alter sexual development, impair neurological development, damage genital organs, feminise behaviour responses and, in some patients, it may lead to the development of diabetes and cancer.

Who has the highest risk of exposure to dioxin?
People who eat a lot of fish, workers producing and handling pesticides, workers without good treatment facilities at petrochemical, petrochlorophenol industries and incinerators, workers at the bleach plant at pulp and paper mills, fire-fighters, people exposed to industrial accidents, toxic waste sites and Agent Orange during the Vietnam War. The Inuits of Arctic Canada have high levels of dioxin in their body because they feed on dioxin-contaminated fish.

Have you experienced severe cases in India? What are the problems faced in treating them?
We are approached by many patients with symptoms like diabetes, infertility, sexual hormonal dysfunctions and we give them proper hormonal replacement, but it is difficult to estimate the effect of dioxin on the body, unless the amount of dioxin in the food consumed by a person is known. However, there can be no proper proof that the illness is due to dioxin. It is known that there is a lot of dioxin in animal fat, but how can we correlate that to the improper functioning of the body. The best way to protect ourselves from dioxin is to consume less fats.

What can be done to solve these problems, particularly in India?
India has no proper regulatory body like the us to impose restrictions on industries that emit dioxin. Unless there is a regulatory body to measure the dioxin levels emitted by industries, humans will continue to be affected.There should be a regular check on the amount of dioxin in soil, water and edibles, avoid use of bleached paper and impose stricter limitations and restrictions on industries emitting dioxin. In developed countries, there are a lot of studies on dioxin effects, but in India, even the medical body has not given any suggestions, mainly because people are not much aware of the toxic effects of dioxin. People should be made more aware of the ill effects of dioxin.

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