Dioxins: What They Are and How to Avoid Them

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Dioxins are environmental pollutants, which are often harmful to human health. They are sometimes called persistent organic pollutants (POPs) because they take many years to break down once they are in the environment.

Serious problems related to childhood development and reproductive and immune system health are sometimes linked to dioxins. They can disrupt hormonal balances and are implicated in cancer.

Preventing Dioxin Poisoning - Illustration by Jiaqi Zhou

Verywell / Jiaqi Zhou

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), dioxins can stay in the body for a long time because of chemical instability and the ability to be absorbed and stored in fat tissue. It is believed they can stay in the body for around seven to 11 years.

Dioxins often enter the body after accumulating in the food chain, especially in animal fats and drinking water. They are found everywhere in the world, and it is not easy to eliminate them.

Many countries have tried to reduce their industrial production of dioxins. The United States no longer produces or uses dioxins commercially, but it is possible to find dioxins in other products, especially herbicides.

In recent years, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has worked to drastically reduce the use of dioxins and their release in the environment. Although dioxin levels have decreased over the last several decades, recent exposures are linked to levels taken in decades before, and low levels of naturally occurring dioxins remain.   

This article will discuss the health effects of dioxin exposure, sources, types, risks, and more.  

Causes  

Dioxins can be hazardous to human health. They are linked to cancers, nervous system disorders, and non-cancer conditions like diabetes, liver disease, heart problems, birth defects, and skin problems. They can be absorbed into the body through the digestive tract (from food we eat) and respiratory tract (from breathing), and through the skin and are distributed throughout the body.

The effect they have on the body depends on many different factors, including:

  • How much gets into the body
  • How the dioxins get into the body
  • How much exposure there was

For example, workers who are exposed to dioxins on the job for many years have increased cancer rates. Occupational exposure can lead to all types of cancer and cancer mortality (death). While much rarer, environmental dioxin exposures are also linked to some types of cancer.  

The EPA has classified dioxins as probable carcinogens (cancer-causing chemicals), but there isn’t sufficient evidence to prove that low-level environmental exposure can lead to cancer. One dioxin, in particular, 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin (TCDD), is considered a known carcinogen, and all other dioxins are considered probable.

Short-term exposure to dioxins can also lead to a skin condition called chloracne, which causes small skin lesions and patchy darkened areas of the skin.  

Researchers have also found that developing fetuses and newborns are the most vulnerable to the effects of dioxins. Environmental dioxin exposure has been linked to birth defects and increased rates of miscarriage (spontaneous loss of pregnancy), which has been demonstrated in animal studies.

Human studies on the effects of environmental dioxins are limited but have produced some evidence that dioxin-related substances may lead to miscarriage, stillbirths, preterm delivery, fetal growth problems, and low birth weight. Other dioxin studies have not shown these effects.  

Sources  

The sources of dioxins are many. They are present everywhere and as microscopic particles that people cannot see.

Food  

Most of the world’s exposure to dioxins comes through food—mainly animal products, such as dairy, meat, and seafood. Once they enter the body, they dissolve in fat and cannot be easily broken down.

Water

Dioxins can get into drinking water. According to the EPA, this can come from different sources, including:  

  • Air emissions from waste incineration and other combustion that gets into lakes and reservoirs
  • Deposits from air to soil that get in surface waters used for drinking
  • Discharges in water from chemical industries

Air  

Dioxins are mainly the result of industrial processes. They are released into the air through different practices, including incineration and trash burning. They can also form from natural sources like forest fires and volcanos.

The EPA has listed dioxins as one of the 30 hazardous air pollutants that pose the greatest health threat to urban areas. While there are hundreds of different forms, only the 2,3,7,8-substituted tetra- through octa-chlorinated dioxins and furans pose a danger to human health.

Tampons  

Some people have concerns about dioxins in tampons and other sanitary menstrual products. In the past, manufacturers were using chlorine to bleach these products, which can raise dioxin levels. However, the companies that make these products no longer use chlorine, which means dioxin levels in tampons are far lower than in the past.

Studies have found detectable levels of dioxins in tampons. Interestingly, the levels found in tampons are far less than the daily exposure to dioxins in the diet.  

Water Bottles  

In the past, it was believed that plastic water bottles contained dioxins, but experts have since dispelled these myths. Some plastic water bottles may, however, contain bisphenol A (BPA) or phthalates, which have been linked to other health problems, including hormonal, endocrine (system that regulates hormones), and reproductive issues.

Types

There are hundreds of different types of dioxins that exist, but according to the EPA, the three main families are:

  • Polychlorinated dibenzo-p-dioxins (PDDs)
  • Polychlorinated dibenzofurans (PCDFs)
  • Certain polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs)

PCDDs

Polychlorinated dibenzo-p-dioxins (also called PCDDs and CDDs) are poisonous compounds. These occur naturally from volcanoes and forest fires and people are exposed to them through the air. Industries can also create PCDDs as impurities and by-products of their processes.

It is unlikely that people can be exposed to high levels of PCDDs that could lead to severe health effects. High levels of PCCDs from occupational exposure can lead to chloracne (rare outbreaks of blackheads, cysts, and nodules) on the face and upper body.  

PCDFs  

Like PCDDs, PCDFs occur as a result of industrial processes. They also tend to co-occur with PCDDs. Their exposure occurs through inhalation and skin contact, mainly in industrial occupations.  

PCBs

PCBs are highly toxic industrial compounds. They have been linked to serious health risks from prolonged or repeated exposure to small amounts. They have been found in pesticides, coolants, and lubricants used in electrical equipment. Fortunately, their use in the United States was stopped in 1977 because of their harmful effects.

Risks

The health risks of dioxins are linked to many different health conditions. Conditions linked to dioxin exposure include:  

  • All types of cancer
  • Reproductive problems, including decreased fertility and reduced sperm counts
  • Developmental problems and learning disabilities
  • Birth defects
  • Miscarriage
  • Immune system suppression (when the body cannot fight off germs because of reduced white blood cells or antibodies)
  • Endometriosis (the uterine lining grows outside of the uterus)
  • Diabetes (inability to control blood sugar levels)
  • Lung problems
  • Skin disorders
  • Ischemic heart disease (reduced blood supply to the heart muscle)

Symptoms of Dioxin Poisoning

Depending on the exposure duration, symptoms of dioxin poisoning can be mild or severe. They also vary with the type of dioxin a person has been exposed to.  

High-level dioxin exposure is rare, but it can occur in the case of a major disaster or accident. Symptoms of high-level exposure might include:  

Low-level exposure to dioxins is much more common. Almost everyone has been exposed to these. The most severe low-level exposure affects people who work with or near dioxin production, including in chemical plants, incinerators, and places where herbicides and pesticides are used.  

Signs of low-level dioxide exposure might include:  

  • Headaches
  • Malaise
  • Skin lesions
  • Elevated liver enzymes (indicating inflammation or damage to the liver)
  • Pulmonary deficiencies (lung and breathing problems)
  • Neurological deficits (abnormal function of a part of the body due to nerve or muscle injury), including memory loss

Preventing Dioxin Poisoning

According to the WHO, recommendations for reducing dioxin exposure from food are:  

  • Choosing lean meats and fish
  • Cutting fat from meats during meal preparation
  • Varying your diet to reduce high exposure to specific foods
  • Choosing fruits, vegetables, and whole grains over meat and seafood

Backyard burning of waste materials should be avoided because it can create high levels of dioxins. Sometimes exposure is higher than from industrial incineration. Because pollutants in backyard burning are released at the ground level, they are more likely to pose a threat to human health.  

Summary  

Dioxins are environmental pollutants that are harmful to human health. Manufacturers in the United States no longer produce dioxins, but these compounds are still present in the environment and the food chain.

Exposure to dioxins, especially on the job, increases cancer risk and the risk for other serious health conditions. You can avoid exposure to dioxins by eating a varied diet, cutting fat from meats or eating lean cuts and fish, and avoiding backyard burning.

A Word From Verywell

Prolonged exposure to dioxins is concerning. However, the exposure that most people experience in their daily lives is unlikely to cause severe adverse health effects.

If you think you have been exposed to dioxins on the job and might be experiencing symptoms of exposure, you should reach out to your healthcare provider to discuss your risk for any related conditions.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What do dioxins do to the body?

    There are many different adverse health effects related to dioxin exposure, including elevated cancer risk. Fortunately, most people in the United States don’t get enough exposure to dioxins in their daily lives, so they are not at risk for any serious health conditions.

  • How do you get dioxin poisoning?

    Dioxin exposure is rare and is often linked to prolonged, high-level exposure. High-level exposure events include major accidents or disasters. Low-level occupational exposure has been linked to mild dioxin poisoning.

  • What is the main source of dioxins?

    A major source of dioxin is waste-burning incineration from various sources. Backyard waste burning can also release high levels of dioxins.

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12 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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