Dioxins are a group of chemicals related to chlorine and benzene. They are known by the federal government to be carcinogenic. Because dioxins are widespread, and are found in small amounts in a variety of consumer products, almost everyone has some exposure. Because dioxins are fat-soluble, the risk to the general population is mostly through food containing animal fats. However, those who work in herbicide, waste incineration or paper manufacturing have a high risk of occupational exposure. Vietnam War veterans and Vietnamese civilians who were exposed to Agent Orange are also thought to have a high risk of dioxin side effects. In addition to cancer, effects of dioxin exposure include a skin problem called chloracne, immune damage, respiratory damage, birth defects and diabetes.
Dioxins — An Overview
Dioxins are a group of chemical compounds that share certain similar chemical structures and biological characteristics. There are several hundred of these toxic compounds and each is a member of one of three closely related families: the chlorinated dibenzo-p-dioxins (CDDs), chlorinated dibenzofurans (CDFs) and certain polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). In their pure form, dioxins are crystals or colorless solids.
Dioxins were contained in the infamous military defoliant Agent Orange. A defoliant is a chemical sprayed or dusted on plants to cause their leaves to fall off. Agent Orange was used extensively in the Vietnam War and has been shown to cause leukemia, spina bifida, lung cancer, diabetes, and other diseases in Vietnam War veterans and their children.
Exposure to Dioxins
Dioxins are released into the air from combustion processes such as commercial or municipal waste incineration and from burning fuels (like wood, coal, or oil). Even the simple process of burning trash can release these toxic compounds and a small amount of dioxins is contained in cigarette smoke. Chlorine bleaching of pulp and paper, certain types of chemical manufacturing and processing, and other industrial processes all can create small quantities of dioxins.
When released into the air, some dioxins may be transported long distances. When released into waste waters, some dioxins are broken down by sunlight and some evaporate into the air. However most dioxins attach to the soil and settle to the bottom sediment in water. Concentrations of dioxin may build up in the food chain, resulting in measurable dioxin levels in animals.
Eating food — primarily meat, dairy products, and fish — makes up more than 90% of the intake of dioxins for the general population. The remaining exposure of dioxins include the following: breathing low levels of dioxin in air; drinking low levels of dioxin in water; skin contact with certain pesticides and herbicides; living near an uncontrolled hazardous waste site containing dioxins or incinerators releasing dioxins; working in industries involved in producing certain pesticides containing dioxins as impurities; and working at paper and pulp mills or operating incinerators.
Dioxin Exposure and Injury to Health
Exposure to dioxins may cause a number of adverse health effects depending on a variety of factors including the level of exposure, when the exposure occurred, and for how long and how often. The most noted health effect in people exposed to large amounts of dioxin is chloracne, a severe skin disease with acne-like sores that occur mainly on the face and upper body. Other effects of dioxin exposure include skin rashes, skin discoloration, excessive body hair, and liver damage. According to ongoing studies, exposure to high levels of dioxins over many years also increases the risk of cancer.
If you believe that you have been exposed to dioxins and have suffered injury, you may have a legal case. If you would like to contact an attorney, please click on the Find Attorney button at the top of the page.
What are Dioxins?
Dioxins are a group of chemical compounds which share similar chemical characteristics. Several hundred individual dioxins exist and belong to one of three closely related families: the chlorinated dibenzo-p-dioxins (CDDs), chlorinated dibenzofurans (CDFs) and certain polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). One chemical in the first group, 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin or 2,3,7,8-TCDD, has been shown to be very toxic in animal studies and is the one most studied. It causes effects on the skin and may cause cancer in humans.
Dioxins are not intentionally manufactured by industry except for research purposes. They (mainly 2,3,7,8-TCDD) may be formed during the chlorine bleaching process at pulp and paper mills. Dioxins are also formed during chlorination by waste and drinking water treatment plants. They can occur as contaminants in the manufacture of certain organic chemicals. Dioxins are released into the air in emissions from municipal solid waste and industrial incinerators.
How can dioxins affect my health?
The most noted health effect in people exposed to large amounts of 2,3,7,8-TCDD is chloracne. Chloracne is a severe skin disease with acne-like lesions that occur mainly on the face and upper body. Other skin effects noted in people exposed to high doses of 2,3,7,8-TCDD include skin rashes, discoloration, and excessive body hair. Changes in blood and urine that may indicate liver damage also are seen in people. Exposure to high concentrations of dioxins may induce long-term alterations in glucose metabolism and subtle changes in hormonal levels.
In certain animal species, 2,3,7,8-TCDD is especially harmful and can cause death after a single exposure. Exposure to lower levels can cause a variety of health effects in animals, such as weight loss, liver damage, and disruption of the endocrine system. In many species of animals, 2,3,7,8-TCDD weakens the immune system and causes a decrease in the system’s ability to fight bacteria and viruses. In other animal studies, exposure to 2,3,7,8-TCDD has caused reproductive damage and birth defects. Some animal species exposed to dioxins during pregnancy had miscarriages. The offspring of animals exposed to 2,3,7,8-TCDD during pregnancy often had severe birth defects including skeletal deformities, kidney defects, and weakened immune responses.
How likely are dioxins to cause cancer?
Several studies suggest that exposure to 2,3,7,8-TCDD increases the risk of several types of cancer in people. Animal studies have also shown an increased risk of cancer from exposure to 2,3,7,8-TCDD. The World Health Organization (WHO) has determined that 2,3,7,8-TCDD is a human carcinogen (a substance that causes cancer). The Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) has determined that 2,3,7,8-TCDD may reasonably be anticipated to cause cancer.
How can dioxins affect children?
Very few studies have looked at the effects of dioxins on children. Chloracne has been seen in children exposed to high levels of dioxins. It is unknown whether dioxins affect the ability of people to have children or if it causes birth defects, but given the effects observed in animal studies, this cannot be ruled out.
How can families reduce the risk of exposure to dioxins?
Children should avoid playing in soils near uncontrolled hazardous waste sites. Children should be discouraged from eating dirt or putting toys or other objects in their mouths. Everyone should wash hands frequently if playing or working near uncontrolled hazardous waste sites. For new mothers and young children, restrict eating foods from the proximity of uncontrolled sites with known dioxins.
If you have been exposed to dioxins and have suffered injury, you may have a legal case. If you would like to speak with a lawyer, please use the Find Attorney button at the top of the page.