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Belgian Meat Dioxin Incident May Have Sertious Consequences
for EU Children--New Scientist (UK)

Recipe for disaster

Debora Mackenzie
BELGIANS WILL BE REELING from
further shocks this week. Food which was last week
revealed to have been contaminated with dioxins also
contained high levels of PCBs--and all the
contaminated produce has probably already been
eaten. What's more, the first estimates of likely doses
suggest that young children may be at risk from the
poisons.

Meat and eggs started reappearing on Belgian grocery
shelves this week, after the discovery of high levels of
dioxins in chickens and eggs led to the destruction of
thousands of tonnes of food.

In January, chicken farmers noticed that eggs were
not hatching and that chicks had neural disorders. At
first, vets suspected nutrient deficiencies. In April,
however, a feed manufacturer sent a laying hen and
suspect feed to RIKILT, the Dutch State Institute for
Quality Control of Agricultural Products based in
Wageningen--the nearest laboratory that could
measure dioxins.

RIKILT found 781 parts per trillion of dioxins in fat
in the feed--more than 1500 times the legal limit. The
contamination was traced to an 80-tonne batch of fat
produced by Verkest, a company near Ghent, which
was sold to 12 feed manufacturers.

Wim Traag of RIKILT says the batch contained 8
litres of oil containing dioxins and PCBs, which are
also toxic. One theory is that used transformer oil,
rich in PCBs, was dumped in a public recycling
container for used frying oil.

The batch would have made 1600 tonnes of feed,
enough to feed 16 million chickens for a day, says
Traag. The number of people affected depends on
how many animals ate the poison and passed it on in
meat or eggs. "Either a few people got a large dose, or
many people got a small dose," says Traag.

So far only two chickens and two eggs collected from
hatcheries in April have been analysed. All were
highly contaminated. The contaminated feed may
have also been eaten by pigs and cattle, prompting the
widespread withdrawal of meat products across
Europe. But meat and eggs produced more recently
have so far tested clean. "The contamination has
probably all been eaten," says Traag.

The two chickens contained 958 and 775 parts per
trillion of dioxin in their fat, and one had 400 parts per
million of PCBs--400 times the Dutch limit for food.
Given the average Belgian diet, says Martin van den
Berg of the University of Utrecht, if all eggs and
chickens in the affected area contained 900 parts per
trillion of dioxin in their fat, people would have
consumed forty times the WHO's recommended daily
limit of 1 picogram per kilogram of body weight. As
certain PCBs resemble dioxins as well, he says, toxic
limits could well have been exceeded a hundred-fold.

The impact on the Belgian population--and on people
elsewhere who ate Belgian products--depends on how
much food was contaminated and how long it was
available. "Most people carry 2 to 6 nanograms per
kilogram of body weight of dioxins already," says
Rolaf van Leeuwen of the WHO's European Centre
for Environment and Health in Bilthoven, the
Netherlands. A single egg containing 900 parts per
trillion of dioxin in its fat adds 6 nanograms to that
load--an increase of as little as 1.4 per cent for an
adult, but as much as 20 per cent for a three-year-old.
Like PCBs, dioxins persist in body fat.

The doses consumed by the Belgians are probably too
low to cause cancer, according to van den Berg, but
could affect neural and cognitive development, the
immune system, and thyroid and steroid hormones,
especially in unborn and young children. "People at
risk should be identified now, and followed medically
for the next ten years," he says.

From New Scientist, 12 June 1999

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