EU scientists sound alarm over dioxin exposure

"Considerable proportion of the EU population" exceeds tolerable intake; tighter controls needed

A "considerable proportion" of the EU population is exposed to high levels of dioxin and related toxic compounds and new measures should be introduced to better understand and control the risks, according to reports by two EU scientific committees.

The reports were prepared by the scientific committee on food (SCF) and the scientific committee on animal nutrition (Scan) at the request of the European Commission (ENDS Daily 1 December 1999). The Commission has been reviewing its strategy on dioxin exposure reduction since a scandal in 1999 when animal feed produced in Belgium was found to be heavily contaminated with the group of organochlorine chemicals (ENDS Daily 2 June 1999).

About 90% of human exposure to dioxins comes from food and the SCF report provides average dioxin contents for various food groups. Wild and farmed fish show the highest contamination levels, followed by eggs, milk and milk products, meat and, finally, plant-based foods.

The committee acknowledges that human exposure to dioxins has fallen by about half during the 1990s - mainly through improved controls on municipal waste incinerators - but says that current exposure rates remain too high. It recommends limiting emissions "to the lowest levels that are technically achievable" and additional strategies to reduce food contamination, including setting maximum limits, threshold levels that trigger action if they are surpassed and target values.

The Scan report on dioxins in animal feed concludes that reducing such contamination would be "an important step" to cutting human dioxin uptake. Due to data gaps its findings cover dioxins only, but it warns that estimated contamination levels could rise by a factor of two once dioxin-like PCBs are included, and by a factor of five for fish meal and fish-oil feeds.

Fish meal and fish oil derived from European fish stocks contain more dioxin than any other feed type, according to Scan. It recommends substituting non-European fish stocks in the production of fish-based animal feeds or switching away from fish meal and oil altogether where possible.

Other measures that the EU should consider, says the report, include changes to manufacturing and agricultural practices to prevent accidental contamination, checks on feed ingredients imported from non-EU countries and development of systems to predict contamination levels in food based on dioxin levels in animal feed.

Follow Up:
European Commission, tel: +32 2 299 1111; SCF opinion; Scan opinion.

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