EU: Many EU citizens are exposed to dioxin levels that exceed WHO maximum levels

"For many individuals, total exposure will currently exceed even the upper limit of the WHO recommended Total Daily Intake," concludes a new report on human exposure to dioxins within the EU.


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Compilation of EU dioxin exposure and health data was prepared for the EC and the UK Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions by AEA Technology. The report assesses levels of human exposure to persistent organic pollutants, or dioxins. Dioxins are known carcinogens.

The report confirms that dioxin exposure is on the decrease, with dietary exposure to dioxins within EU member states having reduced by 9-12% per year since 1993. (Dietary exposure contributes 95-98% of total human dioxin exposure.)

Despite the decreases, the report emphasises that levels of exposure are often too high. The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends total daily dietary exposure of dioxin and dioxin-like compounds at 1-4 pg/ kg of body weight. In the EU, the average total dietary exposure to dioxins alone is in the range of 0.9-3.0pg TEQ/kg of bodyweight/day. If dioxin-like compounds are added – exposure levels of which are estimated as equal to that of dioxins – “background exposure … in the general population of the EU is still at a level where subtle health effects may occur,” say the authors.

Because dioxins are fat soluble “certain individuals or sectors of the community might be regarded as being ‘at risk’, as a result of their higher than average dietary exposure to dioxin and dioxin-like compounds,” states the report. Such ‘at risk’ groups would include people who consume higher than average amounts of fat, particularly fatty fish and fish products, but also meat and dairy products.

Although limits on dioxin emissions to air have, in the majority of EU member states, gone beyond the existing restrictions contained in the Waste Incineration Directive, the report points out that much less attention has been paid to dioxin releases to water. It also highlights the lack of any consistent EU-wide monitoring of dioxin levels in soil, sediment, air, sewage sludge and pine needles.

Seven recommendations for the EU are included in the report. They are:

  • undertake a cost/benefit analysis of controls on dioxin releases to air and water and harmonise legislation on emissions across the EU
  • develop standardised indicators to monitor the impact of regulatory controls, including concentrations in ambient air and deposition, sediments and human blood
  • establish Maximum Tolerable Concentrations of dioxins and dioxin-like PCBs for key foodstuffs
  • identify the main contributor to dietary exposure in southern EU member states
  • encourage member states to provide the public with information regarding concentrations of dioxin and dioxin-like PCBs in specific foodstuffs
  • encourage further research into the impact on breast-fed infants of short periods of high exposure, including effects on neurological, immune system, reproductive system, endocrinological and intellectual development
  • encourage member states to adopt WHO recommended total daily intake of 1-4pg TEQ/kg/day

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