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prn8099 - Number 23, June 1999

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The control of dioxin versus tobacco - why the double standards?

The dioxin scare which took place just before the end of May, almost totally overshadowed this year’s World No-Tobacco Day. Apart from some brief reports on the current theme, "Leave your pack at home", major headlines until recently were focused more on dioxin.

This is perhaps to be expected. Dioxin seems to have that ‘novelty’ effect compared to issues related to other substances like tobacco. It is therefore understandable that many authorities are not taking any chances. After all before this most Malaysians would not have cared much about dioxin. Some would readily admit that they have not heard of the substance, less still to worry about its effect. But this is changed almost overnight. The media hypes national and internationally, plus the government’s concerted actions have served well in creating a high degree of public awareness. In a very short period of time, the vast majority of public were taught that dioxin is such a dangerous substance that ought not to be consumed at all cost. Although initially it created some confusions; eventually Malaysians of almost all walks of life understood the health warning.

It is undeniably that dioxin is a highly toxic substance. On top of this, it is also carcinogenic. These facts were reinforced through the uncomprising decision to immediately ban all food so much as suspected to be contaminated with dioxin. More so when the decision encompassed all those from the European Union. Despite protests that the blanket action is ‘unfair’, the Ministry of Health stood its ground. Its concern to protect public health and safety is indeed impressive. Its insistence that all products must be proven to be toxic-free by the exporting countries before it could be sold again gave the needed booster for public confidence.

A lesson to be learnt

The Ministry seemed to be in complete control to the extent that manufacturer’s ‘guarantee’ on the safety of their products is not enough. They were categoricaly told to withdraw all advertisements carrying claims that their products are safe. It is for the Ministry to solely certify what is safe for the people. Given all these initiatives, Malaysians at once understood that dioxin is lethal. The basic message reached the public loud and clear - dioxin is not for consumption. In summary, the handling of the dioxin scare is one success story that must be applauded and should be emulated to safeguard other public health interest.

But this is does not seemed so when it comes to tobacco. In contrast to the swift and effective strategies adopted in the dioxin scare, tobacco control in this country seems an ardous, never-ending task. What have been achieved so far, tell a far less impressive story. Could it be because tobacco is not as scary anymore. Or not as toxic, nor dangerous? Or not even cancer-causing?

Clearly, nothing can be further from the truth. The brief comparison (on page 8) explains why. Based on the comparison, one would be convinced that tobacco is as dangerous as dioxin, if not much more so. In fact, there are documented evidences that reported dioxin too can be released from cigarette smoking. Then, why the glaring discrepancies between the action take to protect the public from dioxin, and that from tobacco use especially cigarette smoking. Logically, one would expect that the action taken in preventing the toxic effects of tobacco on public health to be equally, if not more earnestly, enforced. The bottomline therefore: if in fact tobacco like dioxin is injurious to public health, then the public deserves to be fully protected - the way they were accorded with in the dioxin scare.

Why the double standards? Is the economic well-being of a few cigarette companies being given preference over public health interest despite it becoming more acute over the years? If so, it is time to adopt the dioxin control strategy: health before economics and people before toxic businesses. This is the only effective way to reduce smoking habit among Malaysians and create a truely tobacco-free country.

 The ‘die’ or ‘sin’ story

Once a upon a time there was a substance called sodium chloride, better known as common table salt. They were chemically manipulated by man, creating for the first time ‘free’ chlorine. Over time a vast array of ‘chlorinated hydrocarbons’ were produced. When used and processed in factories they in turn can release a highly toxic group of chemical by-products, the dioxins. Alas, mankind has successfully introduced a lethal chemical that would eventually cause their own suffering or even demise.

This is the beginning of the ‘die’ or ‘sin’ story. ‘Die’ for those thousands who were inadvertently exposed to the toxic chemicals (as in the case of the Seveso tragedy in Italy in 1976, see page 7) or by designed (as in the case of the tons of ‘Agent Orange’ being sprayed over Vietnam during the ill-fated war). ‘Sin’ is for those despite knowing how toxic such a chemical keep insisting in using them even during peace time. There seems to be only two choices as far as dioxin is concern - ‘die’ or ‘sin’. It is the ‘sinners’ that concerns us today .

Despite being one of the most toxic unwanted byproduct ever studied in the last century, and the number of ‘sinners’ seems unrelenting. In fact, as late as 1995, the US Environmental Protection Agency study continued to remind us of the health impact of dioxin. It mentioned numerous problems like:

  • immune system toxicity
  • central nervous system toxicity
  • endocrine-hormonal disruptions
  • reduction in sperm count
  • endometriosis, and
  • a variety of cancers.

The effects on children

The toll on children is even greater. Since dioxin can exhibit serious health effects when it reaches as little as a few parts per trillion in the body fat, a growing child tend to be worst of. These include reports on the impact on normal growth and development of the young, for example, behavioural effects and learning disabilities. Exposure to dioxin can also cause severe reproductive and developmental problems, at levels 100 times lower than those associated with its cancer causing effects. There have been reports of miscarriages and birth deformity due to the poison. Many Vietnam war babies who were exposed to dioxin exhibited such marked effects.

Even today it has been documented that in just a few months of breastfeeding, a typical infant in the US would ingest several lifetime doses of dioxin. Similarly a recent report submitted to Britain’s Department of Health showed that the breast-fed infants are receiving up to 17 times the tolerable amounts of dioxins and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).

Although in June last year, the World Health Organization, lowered the tolerable daily intake from 10 picogrammes per kilogrammes bodyweight to 1 to 4 picogrammes per kilogrammes body-weight, the truth is no "safe threshold" level for dioxin in the human body, especially that of children.

The fallen world of PVC

In late 1994, a polyvinyl chloride (PVC) production plant near Venice, Italy was implicated in a report claiming a high rate of cancer among the plant workers. From the analysis of causes of death of 84 workers who were employed at the plant from 1970 to 1980, a majority, that is 68 workers, died of cancer mainly due to lung and kidney tumours. Another 6 who survived are severely disabled by cancer. Of the 424 workers employed at the plant during the 10-year period, 17.5 per cent contracted cancer. These and other similar cases at the plant led to several managers of the company being charged with culpable homicide and environmental disasters.

It is now well-recognised that discharges from the manufacturing of PVC, a widely used plastic material, has been cited as one of the largest source of dioxins. The plastics are popularly use in wire insulation, plumbing pipes, bottles, handbags, automobile parts and accessories. The manufacture of PVC involves the use chlorinated paraffins as plasticizers and flame retardants.

Chlorinated paraffins too has been used in metal processing, paint and sealing compounds. Indeed industries dealing with chemicals, pesticides, metal as well as pulp and paper often emit dioxins. Chlorinated paraffins are carcinogenic substances that damage the human liver, kidneys and reproductive system. They are also equally hazardous to marine life.

Most of all it is the processes of incineration that cause the biggest risks. Incinerating halogenated hydrocarbons will always creates emissions of dioxins (and furans). Because of this, the burning chlorinated substances like PVC and PCBs are regarded as one of the most environmentally unsound ways of disposal. This is bound to happen given the limited and poorly managed waste separation system in many developing countries. Similarly, the disposal of chlorine-bleached paper (which are used by some popular magazines) can result in thousand of kilograms of dioxin and other organochlorine pollutants into the environment. Hence incineration continues to be an issue of concern in many developing countries which do not practice effective legal requirement and standards for the monitoring of dioxins (see also accompanying article on page 7).

Phasing out PVC

In short, PVC can exacted on the ecosystem and the human health. This has been increasing recognised by many countries around the world. Countries like Sweden has on November 23, 1995 agreed to phase out PVC after the Swedish Committee for Agriculture submitted to the Parliament that "an overall assessment shows that PVC cannot be part of an eco-cycle society. Today’s plasticized as well as rigid PVC with environmentally harmful additives, should therefore be phased out. The phase-out should begin speedily."

This sound like a good advice for the health conscious Malaysians in getting the ‘sinners’ and their associates to repent. Only by so doing can the ‘die’ or ‘sin’ story be rewritten with a happy ending.N

Related articles in previous issues:


Review on

Polychlorinated Biphenyl (PCBs) and Dioxins

by Mohamed Isa Abd. Majid, PhD

Dioxins are well known for their cancer-causing effects. On previous ocassions, these compounds have received little attention in Malaysia until the recent scare involving Belgian’s poultry and eggs which were tainted with the carcinogenic dioxins. In a move to protect the consumer’s health, the Food Quality Control Division of the Ministry of Health has imposed a ban on food imports from Europe and ordered a recall of suspect products such as milk formula.

The source of contamination as reported was an 80,000kg batch of fats that a Belgium company sold to feed mills supplying European farms. Not only were the levels of dioxins reported to be extremely high in the contaminated fats (1,500 times higher than the Dutch safe limit) but also another equally hazardous contaminant was also found - PCBs.

These two compounds belong to a class (popularly labelled as ‘dirty dozen’) of dangerous compounds known as persistent organic polluants or POPs (see PRN8099, October 1998, No. 20). As the name suggests, their effects are particularly pernicious as these chemicals are very stable and stay in the environment for a long time. Other compounds which are considered problematic include aldrin, chlordane, DDT, dieldrin, endrin, heptachlor, mirex, toxaphene, hexa-chloro-benzene and furans.

This article aims to create awareness among consumers and health care providers on the issues relating to dioxins and PCBs. Any interested reader should understand that these two groups of chemicals are indicators for environmental problems and eventually, they will enter the food chain to cause detrimental effects to human health.

What are dioxins and PCBs?

Dioxins are a group of compounds that are not deliberately manufactured for commercial use but are trace contaminants or by-products of combustion of other products. Dioxins have emerged in the past 15 years as one of the two or three most dangerous chemicals ever tested. Intensive study of dioxins has confirmed that dioxins acts as a powerful growth dysregulator, an environmental hormone that interferes with normal growth and development in fish, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and mammals, including humans. Dioxins disrupt the central nervous system, the immune system, the hormone (endocrine) system, and the reproductive system, preventing normal growth and development of the young and causing a variety of cancers.

A recent estimate of annual worldwide dioxins production (which amounts to 3000 kilograms [kg] per year) indicates that major sources of dioxins include:

  • municipal solid waste incinerators (1130kg or 37.6% of world total)
  • cement kilns burning hazardous waste (680kg or 23%)
  • steel smelters (350kg or 12% of total)
  • biomass combustion (350kg or 12%).
  • medical waste incinerators (84kg or 2.8%)
  • copper smelting (74kg or 2.6%)
  • automobiles burning leaded petrol (11kg or 0.4%)

One specific compound that has been extensively studied for dioxins, 2,3,7,8 tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin namely TCDD or ‘Agent orange’ has been described as one of the most toxic substances known to human. It exhibits delayed biological response in many species and is lethal at exceptionally low doses to aquatic organisms, birds and mammals. It has been shown to be carcinogenic, teratogenic, fetotoxic and acnegenic. This compound has been shown to be formed as trace contaminant of 2,4,5-trichlorophenoxyacetic acid, the antibacterial agent, hexachlorophene or trichlorophenol. Besides dioxins, polychlorodibenzofuran compounds are also contaminants from the same processes but in general are thought to be less toxic than poly-chlorodiben-zodioxins and thus will not be discussed here.

On the other hand, PCBs are polychlorinated biphenyls. The term may refer to any of 209 possible chlorinated biphenyls with differing numbers of chlorines attached to the basic biphenyl structure. As a result of their excellent electrical insulating properties, polychlorinated biphenyls found their largest applications in electrical equipment, including electrical transformers and capacitors. They have also been used in hydraulic fluids and lubricants, gas-transmission turbines, petroleum additives, heat transfer fluids, carbonless copy papers, pesticide extenders, dedusting agents, fire retardants, and plasticizers. A special group of PCBs known as Aroclors, particularly those containing high percentages of chlorine, have been used as enzyme inducers in research laboratories worldwide.

Chemical Structure of PCBs

What are their physical and chemical properties?

In commercial uses, PCBs are used as mixtures with clear, light yellow or dark colour, and range from oily liquids to waxy or hard solids. They do not crystallise at low temperature, but turn into solid resins. Because of the chlorine atoms in the molecule, the compounds have a fairly high flash-points (170-380 degree Celcius). They form vapours that are heavier than air, but they do not form an explosive mixture with air. The electrical conductivity of PCBs is very low, and their resistance to thermal breakdown is extremely high. It is on the basis of these properties that they are used as cooling liquids in electrical equipment. PCBs are chemically stable under normal conditions. They are very resistant to a range of oxidants and other chemicals. They also remain chemically unchanged even in the presence of oxygen, or some active metals, at high temperatures (up to 170 degree Celcius), and for a prolonged periods. PCBs are practically insoluble in water; however,they dissolve easily in hydrocarbons, fats, and other organic compounds. They are readily adsorbed by fatty tissues in animals and humans.

Dioxins are formed as a by-product trace contaminant in a number of organic and inorganic chemicals during certain industrial processes. These are usually the result of reaction in the liquid phase at temperatures below 250 degree Celcius. Among the operations where such risks may be present are production of pesticides, chlorophenol production, sewage sludge disposal and disposal of municipal solid waste (MSW) to landfill. Dioxins can also be formed by thermal processes typically involving combustion at 800 degree Celcius and above but some lower temperature processes also have the potential to dioxins. These processes are MSW combustion, incineration of clinical waste, industrial coal burning and iron and steel production.

What are the route of exposures of these compounds to human?


Because they persist for a long time, and their volatility, PCBs are present in the air, all over the world, at concentrations of 0.002 to 15 ng/m3. In industrial areas, higher levels of up to micrograms/ m3 are found. In rain-water, PCBs have been detected in the range up to 250 ng/litre. Under workplace conditions, the levels in the air may be much higher. In the manufacturing of transformers or capacitors, for instance, levels of up to 1000 mg/m3 have been observed. In emergency situations, concentrations of up to 16 mg/ m3 have been measured. In the case of fires and/or explosions, the soot may contain high levels of PCBs concentrations. In these emergency situations, skin contamination with soot is possible, and ingestion or inhalation of soot particles may occur and result in serious exposures of personnel. However, the exposure of the general population through the air will be very low.


Surface water may be contaminated by PCBs atmospheric fall-out, or by direct emissions from point sources, or waste disposal. Under certain conditions, levels of up to 100-500ng/litre of water have been measured. Soil and sediments normally contain concentrations of PCBs in the range of less than 0.01-2.0 mg/kg. In polluted areas, the levels in soils have been much higher, up to 500 mg/kg.


Over the years, many thousands of samples of different foodstuffs have been analysed, in several countries, for contaminants, including PCBs and dioxins. Most samples have been taken from individual food items, especially fish and other foods of animal origin, such as meat and milk. Food becomes contaminated with PCBs and dioxins by three main routes:

  • uptake from the environment by fish, birds, livestock (via food-chain and crops)
  • migration from packaging materials into food (mainly less than 1 mg/kg. But in some cases up to 10 mg/kg);
  • direct contamination of foodstuffs or animal feed as the result of an industrial accident.

For the most important food items that contain PCBs, the following concentrations have been found: animal fat, 20-24-µg/kg; cow’s milk, 5-200µg/kg; butter, 30-80µg/kg; fish, 10-500µg/kg, on fats basis. Certain fish species (eel) and fish products (fish liver and fish oils) contained much higher levels, up to 10 mg PCBs/kg. Levels of less than 10µg/kg were found in vegetables, cereals, fruits, and a number of other products. Fish, shellfish, meat, milk, and other dairy products are the main foods that give rise to concerns regarding to levels of PCBs. The median levels reported in fish, in various countries, are in the order of 100µg/kg (on fats basis); however, it appears that the levels of PCBs in fish are slowly decreasing.

Human exposure to dioxins may occur through background (environmental) exposure, accidental and occupational contamination. Over 90 percent of human background exposure is estimated to occur through the diet, with food from animal origin being the predominant source. Dioxins contamination of food is primarily caused by deposition of emissions from various sources (e.g. waste incineration, production of chemicals) on farmland and waterbodies followed by bioaccu-mulation up the terrestrial and aquatic foodchains. Other sources may include contaminated feed for cattle, chicken and farmed fish, improper application of sewage sludge, flooding of pastures, waste effluents and certain types of food processing. The available information derived from numerous studies in industrialized countries indicates a daily intake of dioxins in the order of 50-200 pg I-TEQ (international toxic equivalent)/person/day, or 1-3 pg I-TEQ/kg bw/day for a 60 kg adult. This results in average human background levels in the range of 10-30 pg I-TEQ/g lipid, equivalent to a body burden of 2-6 ng I-TEQ/kg body weight. Special consumption habits, particularly one low in animal fat or consumption of highly contaminated food stuffs may lead to lower or higher TEQ intake values, respectively. The intake of dioxins and PCBs increases during childhood and stabilizes in adults of about 20 years of age. However, the intake on a per kilogram basis decreases in this period due to the increasing body weight.

What are the acute effects of these compounds?

Under occupational conditions, skin rash has occurred a few hours after acute exposure. Furthermore, itching, burning sensations, irritation of the conjunctivae, pigmentation of fingers and nails, and chlorancne were found after exposure to high PCB concentrations. Chloracne is one of the most prevalent findings among PCB-exposed workers. Besides these dermal signs of intoxication, different authors have found liver disturbances, immunosuppressive changes, transient irritation of the mucous membranes of the respiratory tract, and neurological and unspecific psychological or psychosomatic effects, such as headache, dizziness, depression, sleep and memory disturbances, nervousness, fatigue, and impotence.

PCBs have low acute toxicity, but because they accumulate in the environment and in animal and human tissues, the potential for chronic or delayed toxicity is significant. Therefore, the acute oral and dermal toxicity is said to be low, but under occupational conditions skin rash may occur a few hours after acute exposure. In humans, the dermal effects include chloracne, simple erythematous eruptions with pruritus, acute eczematous contact dermatitis, burning sensation and edema of the face and hands, thickening of the skin, pigmentation of skin and nails, excessive eye discharge, swelling of eyelids, and distinctive hair follicles. Massive doses can cause hepatitis, facial oedema, numbness, and weakness of the extremities. When significant amount of these compounds have been ingested, severe abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea have been reported following acute and chronic exposures. In some instances, the neurologic effects seen include headache, dizziness, depression, and nervousness may occur. Muscle and joint pain have also been observed. These compounds also have been reported to cause fetotoxic effects have been reported following maternal exposure in both humans and experimental animals.

The seriousness of PCBs acute exposure can be seen from an incident in Yusho, Japan in 1968. More than 1600 people consumed rice oil tainted with PCBs. The resultant symptoms were wide ranging and included headache, fatigue, sweaty palms, itching, visual disturbances, numbness of the extremities, joint pains or swelling, cough, menstrual changes and abdominal pain.

When PCBs are subjected to low combustion temperature, polychlorinated dibenzo-para-dioxins and polychlorinated dibenzofurans can be formed. Among the signs and symptoms of exposure to these derivatives may include lymphoid depletion, thymic atrophy, liver damage, hemorrhage, and chloracne.

In summary, the acute clinical clinical effects seen with these compounds are:

HEENT: facial edema, eye irritation, purulent eye discharge, eyelid swelling, hearing deficits.

Cardiovascular: hypertension

Neurologic: peripheral neuropathy, headache.

Gastrointestinal: GI upset, diarrhea, liver damage, clinical hepatits, elevated liver function test

Metabolic: long term hepatic enzyme induction, elevated serum triglycerides

Dermatologic: acneiform eruptions, hyperpigmentation, and peripheral neurotoxicity were prominent features following dietary exposure in contaminated cooking oils in Japan and Taiwan.

Reproductive: teratogenicity, excretion in breast milk

Miscellaneous: carcinogenicity.

Unlike PCBs, there are no known cases of human fatalities from acute exposure to dioxins. Most acute exposures to dioxins occur during chemical reactions. Acute early signs and symptoms include chemical burns of the skin, irritation of the mucous membranes and eyes, nausea, vomiting, and severe muscle pains. After a latent period of several weeks, chloracne, porphyria cutanea tarda, hirsutism, and/or hyperpigmentation may occur. Polyneuropathies and liver damage are frequently noted. Elevated blood lipids are common and may persist.

What are their chronic effects?

Workers chronically exposed to PCBs have had skin and mucous membrane irritation, skin hyperpigmentation, chloracne, headaches, abnormal liver function tests, hepatomegaly, malaise, and ocassionally peripheral sensory neu-ropathy. Hypercholesterolemia has been observed in experimental animals, and is one of the earliest signs of chronic PCB poisoning in humans. Besides this, lymphopenia, thymic and splenic atrophy, and a decreased number of circulating lymphocytes have been found in exposed experimental animals, as well as organ weight changes, a diminished growth weight, weight loss or wasting syndrome, acneigenesis, and porphyria. Similar conditions have been observed in humans.

Dioxins and dioxin-like compounds have been proven to cause structural malformations in humans, (reproductive effects). These include ectodermal dysplasia, growth and neurological deficits, and T4 and TSH elevations. For carcinogenicity effects, dioxins are probable human carcinogens. Evidence is strong for association with soft tissue sarcomas.

What measures can be instituted in cases of significant exposure to these compounds?

In general, most PCBs exposures are environmental or occupational with delayed signs or symptoms being the first indications that an intoxication has occurred. Treatment is only supportive in cases of PCBs exposure.

In almost all cases of ingestions of PCBs, emesis is said to be of NO value. Vomiting of the pure substance may cause aspiration. Activated charcoal as an aqueous slurry can be given to patients who are awake and able to protect their airway. The dose of the activated charcoal is a mixture of 30 gm of the charcoal in a minimum of 240 milliliters of diluent. The optimum dose of charcoal has not been established but a usual dose of 25 to 100 grams can be given to adults while 25 to 50 grams of the charcoal is given to children aged 1 to 12 years; and 1 g/kg in infants up to 1 year old.

If the chemical contacts the eyes, immediately wash the eyes with large amounts of water, occasionally lifting the lower and upper lids. Immediately, bring the patient to medical attention immediately. Contact lenses should not be worn when working with this chemical.

For dermal exposure, immediately wash the contaminated skin with soap and water. If the chemical penetrates the clothing, immediately remove the clothing, wash the skin with soap and water, and get medical attention promptly.

For inhalational exposure, if a person breathes large amounts of this chemical, move the exposed person to fresh air at once. If breathing has stopped, perform mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Keep the affected person warm and at rest. Get medical attention as soon as possible.

The minimum lethal human exposure to PCBs has not been determined. Polychlorinated biphenyls are classified as Group 2A carcinogens. According to this classification by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), there is Human Limited Evidence and Animal Sufficient Evidence to term polychlorinated biphenyls as carcinogenic. The estimated minimal oral intake per day for normal subject is 200 micrograms/kilogram of body weight. Symptoms of acute poisonings are seen after a minimum oral intake of 500 milligrams.

In inhalational exposure to dioxins, the patient should be removed to fresh air. Monitor for respiratory distress. If cough or difficulty in breathing develops, evaluate for respiratory tract irritation, bronchitis, or pneumonitis. Humidified saturated supplemental oxygen with assisted ventilation may be adinistered as required.

For dermal exposure, wash exposed area extremely thoroughly with soap and water. The personnel involved in washing patients should wear gloves and avoid contact with contaminated clothing. In eye exposure, the same measure as done for PCBs should be initiated in known cases of dioxins’ exposure.

For oral exposure to dioxins, the same approach for PCBs should be followed. The cummulative oral doses of 100mcg/kg are estimated to be the minimum toxic dose. A dermal exposure to soil concentrations of greater than 100 ppm are likely to produce chloracne.

 Incineration Technology: A Burning Issue

In the US, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has identified incinerators as the largest source of dioxin. The poison is often one of the many components of the gaseous emissions called ‘flue gas’ which despite being ‘washed’ through a cleaning process may still contain some residues. Contrary to corporate rhetoric, even state-of-the-art incinerators release toxic substances, including dioxins and heavy metals, into the air, water and land. Since dioxin is a ‘persistent bioaccumulative toxic chemical’, even minute residues could pose long-term health and environmental risks.

Given the many failures of incineration technology, coupled with the success of the anti-incineration movement in the U.S. and Western Europe, incineration companies have inadvertently been sent out to search for new markets in newly industrialized countries. Since the early 1990s, the environmental movement - Greenpeace - for example, has monitored industry attempts to construct waste incinerators in the South and the countries of the former communist bloc. Specifically, in Latin America, toxics campaigners have uncovered so many proposals to construct waste incinerators, that Greenpeace has rated incineration the priority toxics issue for the region.

Northern incinerator companies such as Metalclad Corp. (U.S.), Thermoselect (Switzerland), Martin (Germany), DeBartolome (Italy), Vicarb (France), and Continental Waste Conversion, Inc. (Canada) have been identified by the movement as rushing to convince Latin American authorities that incineration is the answer to their waste problems. These corporations are showing up in communities throughout the region, claiming that incineration is a popular, proven choice for waste management, and that all the technological difficulties associated with incineration have been solved. Sometimes, this corporate misinformation is the only literature available to communities struggling with waste problems.

"Government authorities considering incineration are very surprised to learn that the dioxin emission problem has not been solved", reported Madeleine Cogging, a Greenpeace toxics expert who recently spent two months in Latin America researching the regional anti-toxics movement. "In fact, some officials are convinced that ‘waste-to-energy’ facilities are totally different from waste incinerators".

The Malaysian Scenario

In Malaysia, it is reported that there are four major incinerators, three of which are for clinical waste and the other industrial waste. It is understood that there is no incinerator handling municipal (garbage) waste as yet. While there are assurance that the four incinerators have been operating within the guideline based on that of European Union (not exceeding 0.1 nanogramme per cubic metre), there is still no standards for dioxin emissions in the Malaysian environmental laws.

The irony is, once these incinerators exist, they will require a steady input of wastes to burn, to remain economical. The more they are built, the greater is the chance that wastes will be imported to fill any excess capacity, otherwise they will operate at a loss. In another words waste importing-countries are literally dumping grounds with all the impending health and environmental problems.

Added to this are the smaller incinerators that could also released dioxins especially if it involved hydrocarbons and chlorine in the wastes like PVC as discussed in the accompany article (see page 2). This is more likely if the separation of waste disposal is not yet an accepted practice in the community. Paper, metal, glass and wood are separated from chlorinated wastes for the toxic wastes to be better managed.

In any case, big or small, accidents and negligence involving dioxins can occur with direct consequences on innocent lives as in the case of Seveso, Italy in 1976. It resulted in 474 burns, 187 cases of chloracne, 737 long-term evacuation and, thousands of animals killed and slaughtered. It involved more than 4 sq. kilometre of environmental damage, with an estimated evacuation cost of US$3.5 million.

Many more dioxin-related disasters can be cited in the US. This include the Love Canal at Niagara Falls in New York, where hundreds of families were forced to abandon their homes, resulting in the creation a ghost town. Others were at Time Beach (Missuori), Pensacola (Florida) and the entire city of Midland, Michigan.

Again in February 1998, the French authorities after detecting excessive levels of dixions in the milk of diary cows have ordered three waste incinerators located near the farm to be closed. Yet again as recent as March 1999, about a ton of particles said to be contaminated with dioxins escaped into the environment in Duisburg, Germany polluting an area of more than 3,000 sq. kilometre. It was reported to be due to malfunction.

Waste Prevention

Whatever the merit of the situation, human health effects by toxic incinerator emissions like dioxins and heavy metals, as well as the complications of ash disposal must not be an after thought. Our health cannot be better than the health of the environment that we live in - the quality of our air, land and water - with or without incinerations. As such it is more prudent to Malaysians to adopt a waste prevention strategies which the aim not to produce waste where possible, or in minimum quantity.

When there are wastes, the long-term solution is to recycle and reuse the non-toxic ones. As for the toxic wastes, the only way to deal with them is to limit the use of potentially hazardous materials with the eventual goal to phase them out, including all known and potentially toxic production processes. We ought to investing time and money in educating ourselves in making waste prevention as a way of life rather than resorting only to waste disposal technology that is fast being considered a liability.

Reference: International Toxics Investigator,
No. 8.1, 1996

 Comparative Hazards Between Dioxin and Tobacco

Characteristics of DIOXIN in food products Characteristics of TOBACCO in cigarettes
A group highly toxic chemical (see page 3) Contained about 4,000 chemicals. Some are highly toxic, for example: cyanide, arsenic, pesticide
A carcinogenic substance Contained some 10 potential carcinogenic substances, notably benzopyrene which is found in cigarette tar
International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified it as Class 1 carcinogen, that is, a "known human carcinogen." US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) classified the tobacco smoke as a Class A carcinogen along with asbestos, benzene and radon gas
An unintentional contaminant arising from the surrounding environment to be minmised at all costs An intentionally cultivated crop which in the process of making cigarettes are added various chemicals as preservatives, enhancers and flavouring agents
Released when chlorinated substances like PVC are subjected to high combustion (see The ‘die’ or ‘sin’ story) When burned, the tip of a cigarette produced ‘sidestream’ fumes concentrated with other toxic gases like carbon monoxide and hydrogen cyanide
Confined to certain industrial processes and incineration (see also p.7), but often governed by industrial safety standards Toxic substances and particles are readily released into the environment during smoking giving rise to the phenomenon of ‘passive’ smoking. Vitrually no safety levels
Not an addictive substance Contained nicotine, a proven highly addictive substance liken to that of cocaine, amphetamine and even heroin

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