The German Dioxins Scare

Just a quick post this week (work is rather busy at the moment). There’s been an incident in the news lately of various agricultural products contaminated with dioxins in Germany (lots of the articles refer to “dioxin”, but it should be “dioxins” since it refers to a group of chemicals that are normally looked at together). The source is apparently contaminated feed for poultry and swine. Is this an immediate health hazard?

Well, it’s hard to get hard numbers from the easily available sources, but from what I can see the highest measured concentration is “77 times the approved limit.” At first glance that sounds pretty bad, but in reality this doesn’t mean that eating a couple of contaminated eggs or a pork chop is going to cause serious problems. For carcinogens, such as dioxins, the maximum allowable levels in food are generally set at the maximum level at which it is believed someone could be exposed on a continual basis over their entire life without a significant chance of getting cancer, since the chance of getting cancer is believed to be related to the lifetime cumulative exposure. Short-term exposures that are higher than this limit are generally averaged out over time, and don’t generally result in a big increase in your long-term average dose. Of course 77 times the approved limit is still awfully high, but that likely reflects the highest values measured, and most of the contaminated products probably have much lower levels. For example, eggs that were exported to the UK were found to have a level of 0.23 picograms per gram of fat, compared to a limit of 3 picograms per gram of fat.

Overall this incident is obviously not a good thing, and action needed to be taken to address the contaminated products, but someone eating a small amount of the produce probably isn’t at risk of adverse effects from the dioxins.

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