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J Air Waste Manag Assoc. 1998 Feb;48(2):157-65.

Health impact of polychlorinated dibenzo-p-dioxins: a critical review.

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  • 1National Center for Environmental Assessment, United States Environmental Protection Agency, Cincinnati, Ohio, USA.


Polychlorinated dibenzo-p-dioxins (PCDDs), commonly known as dioxins, form as unwanted impurities in the manufacturing of chlorophenol and its derivatives--pulp and paper--and in the combustion of municipal, sewage-sludge, hospital, and hazardous waste. Combustion, in presence of a chlorine donor, seems to be a major source of these compounds. High levels of dioxins are also emitted from metallurgical industries including copper smelters, electric furnaces in steel mills, and wire reclamation incinerators. Trace levels are detectable in emissions from motor vehicles using leaded gasoline or diesel fuel, in forest fires, and in residential wood burning. Extremely persistent and widely distributed in the environment, PCDDs have been detected in all three primary and many secondary media. Releases into the air occur mainly from combustor emissions. Atmospheric dispersion, deposition, and subsequent accumulation in the food chain seem to be the major pathways of exposure to the general population. Residues of these chemicals have been detected in soil, sediment, fish, meat, cow's milk, human adipose tissue, and mothers' milk. In general, these chemicals have high lipophilicity. The elimination half-life of 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin (TCDD) in humans is approximately 7-11 years. Very little human toxicity data from exposure to PCDDs are available. Health-effect data obtained from occupational settings in humans are based on exposure to chemicals contaminated with TCDD. It produces a spectrum of toxic effects in animals and is one of the most toxic chemicals known. Most of the toxicity data available on TCDD are from high-dose oral exposures to animals. Very few percutaneous and no inhalation exposure data are available in the literature. There is a wide range of difference in sensitivity to PCDD lethality in animals. The signs and symptoms of poisoning with chemicals contaminated with TCDD in humans are analogous to those observed in animals. Dioxin exposures to humans are associated with increased risk of severe skin lesions such as chloracne and hyperpigmentation, altered liver function and lipid metabolism, general weakness associated with drastic weight loss, changes in activities of various liver enzymes, depression of the immune system, and endocrine- and nervous-system abnormalities. It is a potent teratogenic and fetotoxic chemical in animals. A very potent promoter in rat liver carcinogenesis, TCDD also causes cancers of the liver and other organs in animals. Populations occupationally or accidentally exposed to chemicals contaminated with dioxin have increased incidences of soft-tissue sarcoma and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. No comprehensive studies have been conducted to determine any health impact to the general population from environmental exposure to PCDDs. This paper presents a brief review of relevant animal and human data for projecting any possible health effects from environmental exposures to PCDDs.

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