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What Is Dioxin?

Dioxin is the name generally given to a class of super-toxic chemicals, the chlorinated dioxins and furans, formed as a by-product of the manufacture, molding, or burning of organic chemicals and plastics that contain chlorine. It is the nastiest, most toxic man-made organic chemical; its toxicity is second only to radioactive waste. Dioxin made headlines several years ago at places such as Love Canal, where hundreds of families needed to abandon their homes due to dioxin contamination, and Times Beach, Missouri, a town that was abandoned as a result of dioxin.

Dioxin - An Unprecedented Threat

We now know that dioxin exhibits serious health effects when it reaches as little as a few parts per trillion in your body fat. Dioxin is a powerful hormone disrupting chemical. By binding to a cell's hormone receptor, it literally modifies the functioning and genetic mechanism of the cell, causing a wide range of effects, from cancer to reduced immunity to nervous system disorders to miscarriages and birth deformity. Because it literally changes the functioning of your cells, the effects can be very obvious or very subtle. Because it changes gene functions, it can cause so-called genetic diseases to appear, and can interfere with child development. There is no "threshold" dose - the tiniest amount can cause damage, and our bodies have no defense against it.

Unfortunately, according to the EPA, much of the population of the U.S. is at the dose at which there can be serious health effects. How did this happen? For about 40 years we have seen a dramatic increase in the manufacture and use of chlorinated organic chemicals and plastics. For chemicals, it was insecticides and herbicides (weed killers). For plastics, it was primarily polyvinyl chloride (PVC). From phonograph records to automobile seat covers to wire insulation to shampoo bottles to handbags to house siding to plumbing pipes to wallpaper, we are literally surrounded by PVC. When these chemicals and plastics are manufactured or burned, dioxin is produced as an unwanted (but inevitable) by-product. Dioxin is also formed in paper bleaching, so that most paper products are contaminated. This exposes people who use chlorine-bleached coffee filters (most of the products available), as well as compounding the risks of cancer of those who smoke cigarettes.

Dioxin had been a little-known threat for many years near factories that produce PVC plastic or chlorinated pesticides and herbicides, and where those pesticides and herbicides have been heavily used, such as on farms, near electric and railway lines, apple orchards, paper company forests. It became better known when Vietnam War veterans and Vietnamese civilians, exposed to dioxin-contaminated Agent Orange, became ill. It has been a hazard downstream of paper mills (where chlorine bleach combines with natural organics in wood pulp and produces dioxin).

Several towns and cities have become contaminated as a result of chemical spills or manufacturing emissions, some that needed to be evacuated. Love Canal (Niagara Falls, N.Y), Seveso (Italy), Times Beach (Missouri), Pensacola (Florida), and the entire city of Midland, Michigan have high concentrations of dioxin.

Bizarre health effects, such as cancer, spina bifida (split spine) and other birth defects, autism, liver disease, endometriosis, reduced immunity, chronic fatigue syndrome, psychological disorders, and other nerve and blood disorders have been reported.

But in the last 20 years we have begun to burn household and industrial trash and medical waste in mass-burn incinerators. The result - given that we have disposable vinyl plastic all around us - has been a dramatic increase in dioxin contamination everywhere in the U.S. Dioxin, formed during burning, is carried for hundreds of miles on tiny specks of fly-ash from the incinerators. It settles on crops, which then get eaten by cows, steers, pigs, and chickens. It contaminates lakes, streams, and the ocean. Like the pesticides such as DDT, dioxin accumulates in the fat cells of the animals, and re-appears in meat and milk. Dioxin is virtually indestructible in most environments, and is excreted by the body extremely slowly.

How To Avoid Dioxin

Do not eat beef or pork, which have some of the largest concentrations of dioxin of all food sources. Limit your intake of ocean fish; do not eat any freshwater fish. Chicken has the lowest dioxin content of all meats, but is still significant. Vegetarian meat substitutes such as tofu, beans, and rice have essentially no contamination.

If your family drinks milk, drink only skim milk, since dioxin is carried in the butterfat. Avoid all full-fat dairy products, such as butter, cheese and ice cream. Use non-fat skim-milk products or non-dairy substitutes. If you are female and are considering having children, it is essential that you eat a non-dairy, low-fat vegetarian diet for several years before you have children. Dioxin is passed from the woman's body to the infant through the placenta and in breastmilk, which contains more dioxin than any other food (in relation to an infant’s body weight) for women who consume meat and milk.[1]

Avoid all organic chemicals that have "chloro" as part of their names (such as the wood preservative pentachlorophenol, which is probably the most dioxin-contaminated household chemical). Avoid chlorine bleach (sodium hypochlorite) and products containing it. (Use oxygen bleach instead). Use unbleached paper products.

Do not use weed killers or insecticides that contain chlorine. Especially avoid the chlorophenol weed killers, such as 2,4-D, found in most fertilizer/weed killers and used by commercial lawn services. Avoid "Permethrin" flea sprays for pets.

Avoid household or personal products and toys made of or packaged in polyvinyl chloride - PVC - labeled V or #3 plastic. Avoid using Saran Wrap and similar "cling-type" plastic wraps (unless they are clearly identified as polyethylene.).

Wash all fruits and vegetables carefully to remove chlorophenol pesticide residue. Avoid grapes and raisins unless they are clearly labeled as organic (grown without pesticides).

Avoid all products which have cottonseed oil as an ingredient (such as potato chips), since cotton is often sprayed with chlorophenol insecticides. Do not use soaps containing tallow (most soaps), as it is made from animal fat. Avoid "deodorant" soaps and deodorants containing "triclosan," a chlorophenol.

Use unbleached (brown) coffee filters, or those marked as having been bleached with non-chlorine bleach. If you smoke cigarettes (although tobacco has other cancer hazards) roll your own in unbleached paper.

What You Can Do

The way to reduce the dioxin threat is to stop burning trash and to stop producing PVC and other chlorinated chemicals. If your town sends its trash to an incinerator, tell your town officials to institute comprehensive recycling. Write to companies that use vinyl and ask them to use the known safe substitutes. Ask your supermarket and office supply stores to sell Totally Chlorine Free (TCF) products. Learn more about the dioxin threat. Read the books Dying From Dioxin by Lois Gibbs, and Our Stolen Future by Theo Colborn. Talk to your friends and neighbors about dioxin and what you can do to reduce the threat. Join a community environmental organization, or form one if there are none in your town. Call a state or national organization to get help. Download a copy of a Microsoft Word Version 6-compatible version of this document for a community information leaflet.


[1] For women who eat moderate amounts of meat, fish, and/or dairy in industrialized countries, dioxin contamination of breastmilk is 1-2 parts per trillion dioxin. In just a few months of breastfeeding, a typical infant in the U.S. would ingest several lifetime doses of dioxin. Contamination among non-dairy vegatarians is much, much lower.

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