Our expert says:
'Dioxin' refers to a group of toxic chlorinated organic compounds, produced as a by-product of many industrial processes, such as waste incineration and bleaching fibres. Dioxins are present in tiny amounts in a wide range of materials, including many plastics, resins and bleaches.
Dioxins are long-lived in the environment and make their way into foods. They are soluble in fat, so they accumulate in the bodies of animals and humans over time. This means that small amounts are present in animal food products (meat and dairy). Thus, you can get dioxin in your body both by eating these foods and by inhaling emissions from pollutant sources.
Exposure to dioxin has been linked to an array of negative health effects, including cancer, reproductive and developmental problems, birth defects, diabetes and immune system abnormalities. There have been cases of dioxin contamination of environments which have been clearly linked to people falling ill. For the most part, though, the health effects are the result of years of low-level contamination, or occur some time after exposure.
The type of poisoning Yushchenko is thought to have suffered involves a massive, likely near-fatal dose, probably put into his food. This is considered an extremely unusually case. If he has indeed been poisoned in this way then he is at increased risk for the associated health problems, in addition to the facial disfigurement called 'chloracne'. The severity of his health problems will depend on the dose he received, and whether he gets good, timeous medical treatment. Some of his symptoms (such as the chloracne) could be reversed.
The following are some of the ways recommended to avoid low-level exposure to dioxin and its accumulation in the body over time:
*Eat less meat (which is advisable as a general health aim in any case). Beef or pork are thought to have higher dioxin concentrations than other meats. Fish, unfortunately, is also thought to contain dioxin, but this must be weighed up against its health benefits. Vegetarian food choices have little or no contamination.
*Avoid full-fat dairy products (another good general health aim) such as butter and cheese. Dioxin gets concentrated in the fat, so fat-free dairy products are the way to go.
*Women who are planning to become pregnant should take the above recommendations particularly seriously. Some experts even recommend going vegetarian for several years before you have children (rather discuss this with your doctor first, though). Dioxin is passed from the pregnant woman's body to the foetus through the placenta and to the nursing baby in breastmilk.
*Don¡'t burn waste, and avoid environments where incineration is being carried out.
*Check household, workplace and garden products for organic chemicals that have "chloro" in their names e.g. as may occur in bleaches, wood preservatives, insecticides and herbicides. (As a general rule, use as little as possible of any chemical products in your immediate environment.)
*Use unbleached paper and other fibre products.
*Wash fruit and vegetables well before eating them.
*Avoid products made of or packaged in PVC (polyvinyl chloride) plastic
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