Name given members of a family of closely-related chemicals. The term dioxin is often used for one of these: 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin or TCDD. This substance was present as a contaminant in the herbicide agent orange, which was so widely used during the Vietnam war.

When ingested or injected, TCDD is extremely poisonous to laboratory animals. At sub-lethal concentrations, it causes cancer and birth defects in them.

Exposure to high levels of dioxins causes a severe skin disease (chloracne) in humans as well as damage to the liver and nervous system.

The "before and after" pictures of Ukrainian presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko that were widely circulated in December 2004 show the ravages of chloracne to his face. The evidence indicates deliberate poisoning with pure TCDD producing 100,000 picograms (10-12 g) per gram (so 100 ppb) of blood fat (the second-highest level ever measured in a human). Damage to his internal organs seems to have been transitory, and the chloracne eventually cleared up.

While the evidence is still hotly debated, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is convinced that dioxins cause cancer in humans. They base this conclusion on

Thanks to the development of delicate analytical techniques, it is possible to detect trace amounts in everyone's blood. Most of us have a few parts per trillion (ppt) of TCDD in our serum.

TCDD (and other dioxins) are produced when organic matter is burned. Measurable levels are found in soot from wood-burning stoves and the ash of municipal incinerators. However, the amounts to which we are exposed have dropped some threefold since the mid-80s, and the cancer risk dioxins pose for most of us is probably close to zero.

Dioxin can prevent disease! (in mice)

Experimental allergic encephalomyelitis (EAE) is a disease in experimental animals (e.g., mice, guinea pigs) that closely mimics multiple sclerosis, an autoimmune disease of humans in which the myelin sheaths of neurons are destroyed.

In the 1 May 2008 issue of Nature, F. J. Quintana and colleagues reported that they could strongly suppress the induction of EAE in mice by pretreating them with 1 µg of TCDD. The protection appeared to be mediated by regulatory T cells (Treg) whose numbers rose sharply following TCDD treatment.

Dioxins in milk

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26 December 2010