Inter Press Services
Thu, Nov 20 1997
WASHINGTON, Nov. 20 (IPS) -- Health experts long have warned of the dangers of high-fat foods that can lead to heart disease or cancer. New studies show that each fatty bite may also carry a dose of highly toxic chemicals.
Man-made chemicals, including traces of highly carcinogenic dioxins released into the environment, are turning up in fast-food and grocery store staples such as meat, fish and dairy products in industrialized countries at levels that exceed U.S. government standards by 200 percent or more, according to the studies.
"In industrialized countries you can avoid the intake of dioxins, to a certain extent, by eating food that is low in fat," says Dr. Arnold Schecter, an international medical expert on dioxins and an advisor to the World Health Organization (WHO). "But it is more desirable to avoid producing dioxins in the first place. Developing countries can avoid this problem completely if they do not follow the same polluted industrialized path as we have."
Dioxin is a toxic waste product formed when municipal and hazardous waste is burned, and when chemicals containing chlorine, such as pesticides and paper products, are manufactured. Once an animal has eaten these toxic chemicals that are in the environment as a by-product of industrialization and incineration, they accumulate in the fat.
WHO and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency agree that dioxins cause cancer.
Two recent studies on the subject conducted by Schecter at the State University Health Science Center in Binghamton, New York, have been published in the British journal Chemosphere. He concludes that dioxins, and dioxin-like substances like PCBs and furans, are getting into food supplies at levels that are highest in high-fat foods, and lowest in low-fat foods such as fruits and vegetables.
"Besides cancer, minute amounts of these chemicals have been shown to lead to nervous system and liver damage, as well as to mimic hormones that disrupt reproduction and human development," says Schecter.
He points to a study in Japan and Taiwan of persons who ingested rice oil that had been contaminated with PCBs and furans during the 1960s and 1970s. They suffered from a combination of higher cancer mortality, increased frequency of lung infections, numbness and other nervous system effects.
"It is known that every person in every industrialized country has dioxins in their blood...but since about 96 percent of the general population's exposure to dioxins is through food, we wanted to see if certain kinds of food contained more dioxins than others," Schecter said.
From ice cream and fish bought in the grocery store to Kentucky Fried Chicken and McDonald's Big Mac, all samples collected from across the United States contained trace amounts of dioxin that well exceed many government regulations, according to the studies.
While vegetables and fruits also contained trace amounts of these chemicals, the dose was significantly Less than high fat foods.
Advocacy groups such as the American Public Health Association (APHA) believe that governments should be doing more to protect people's health, especially in light of these new scientific findings.
"The U.S. government and many other countries are not looking at the health effects of dioxin and other synthetic chemicals that end up in our food," says Richard Levinson, senior policy analyst with APHA. "Food agencies are not carefully monitoring these chemicals...we need a more consistent approach."
Levinson says there should be a single agency for food safety that is given adequate legal authority and resources to monitor dioxin levels. Using the example of a pepperoni pizza, he says, "The Food and Drug Administration is monitoring the cheese while the Department of Agriculture monitors the pepperoni. They do not collaborate on projects and usually do not compare their FDA is underfunded as it is."
Next summer, governments will negotiate a global plan to phase out some of these chemicals at the United Nations Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) convention.
Perhaps food labels could include dioxin levels, says Michael Jacobson, executive Director of Center for Science in the Public Interest, an advocacy organization. "Maybe consumers would begin to eat less greasy fatty food if they were told how much dioxin was in each serving."
Developing fetuses and infants are most at risk from the effects of dioxins, Schecter declares.
Birth defects, learning disabilities and other development problems have been linked to dioxin exposure, according to the studies. This is because these chemicals "mimic" or "block" estrogen and progesterone, natural hormones which instruct the body on how it should develop.
In just six months of breast feeding, a baby in the United States will, on average, consume the EPA's maximum lifetime dose of dioxin, Schecter says. Breast milk contains high levels of fat.
The amount of chemicals required to disrupt normal development could be as low as one part in a trillion, he says, the equivalent of a single drop of liquid placed in the center car of a 10-kilometer long cargo train. Dioxins are also highly persistent in the environment and extremely resistant to chemical or physical breakdown.
Schecter, who has been involved with dioxin and PCB studies in Russia, China, Cambodia, the Middle East, and Vietnam as well as the United States, points to the widespread contamination by dioxin. "From penguins in Antarctica to rains that fall in South East Asia to the milk of a nursing mother in Germany, synthetic chemicals have been found."
Despite his gloomy conclusions, Schecter remains hopeful that the problem can be overcome.
"For the most part, these synthetic chemicals are historically new, they have only been around the later half of this century. We must take every step to stop putting dioxins into our environment and our food supplies. We can reverse this trend," he says.
Chart from draft EPA Dioxin Reassessment:
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