Most people are aware of typical environmental contaminants that are produced as a result of modern human activity, such as carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, and particulate matter. Residents of larger cities may even be familiar with the visible smog that can engulf a skyline as a result of these air pollutants.
Aside from the common ones, other toxic contaminants exist in the environment that may be lesser-known by the general population, but can be just as harmful to humans. The word, “dioxins” refers to a group of compounds that includes dioxins, furans, and certain polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). These structurally similar compounds are produced inadvertently as a result of large scale combustion activities such as incineration, thermal metal processes, and car exhaust. PCBs were actually intentionally produced during the mid twentieth century to be used in transformer oil, coolant fluids, carbonless copy paper, and plasticizers, until their manufacture was banned by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1979.
Dioxins belong to a larger group of chemicals called persistent organic pollutants. The key word here is persistent, meaning they are extremely resistant to chemical degradation. Once produced, they can exist in the environment for decades. Upon entering the atmosphere, they are carried by wind and precipitation to be absorbed by our plants and soil, or mixed with our groundwater. Animals intended for human consumption could potentially feed on plants and water containing these harmful dioxins. When they are consumed by a living organism, it’s safe to say dioxins overstay their welcome. They exhibit bioaccumulation, meaning they will accumulate in fatty tissues of animals at a higher rate than they are catabolized or excreted.
There would be no cause for concern with this accumulation if these compounds were harmless. Yet dioxins, furans, and PCBs contain over 400 compounds with varying degrees of toxicity. In 1997, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), which is part of the World Health Organization (WHO), published research declaring that a specific dioxin, 2,3,7,8-TCDD, is a known cancer-causing compound in humans. Since then, WHO has taken several additional steps to evaluate toxicity as well as provide guidance on monitoring levels and establishing preventive measures for regulatory bodies around the world. They have conducted studies in various food products and have held a series of meetings to determine tolerable intake levels.
Consumers eating a typical North American diet will receive over 90% of their dioxin exposure through meat, dairy, and fish products. For the most part, the level of exposure through food consumption is considered background exposure and does not pose significant health risks. Negative effects of dioxin toxicity are likely only to be observed in individuals who work closely with the industrial processes through which dioxins are formed. Some observed effects are developmental and reproductive problems, suppression of the immune system, endocrine system disruption, and formation of an acne-like condition called chloracne.
As concern over exposure increases among global health organizations, adequate analytical techniques are needed as part of monitoring strategies. Some of the most widely recognized methods are those developed by the EPA in the early 1990s through the present that employ the isotope dilution technique. This technique is highly regarded in mass spectrometry applications in which a high level of accuracy is needed in the quantification of chemical substances. The high resolution mass spectrometry system is typically used in tandem with a high resolution gas chromatograph system, which is used to separate the different compounds prior to elution in the mass spectrometer. All of this is done after the use of unique sample extraction strategies based on the specific product matrix to be analyzed.
Mérieux NutriSciences is excited to be opening a High Resolution Gas Chromatography and Mass Spectrometry Laboratory at the Dr. John H. Silliker Solutions Center in Crete, IL. As one of the first food-focused dioxin testing centers in North America, the Crete laboratory will be fully validated to analyze dioxins, furans, and PCBs using EPA method 1613 and 1668 starting in the spring of 2017.
Tune into our vlog to learn more about the setup of the dioxin testing space and the instrumentation, as well as our highly trained on-site staff.
Mérieux NutriSciences also offers analytical testing for several other food contaminants and residues of veterinary drugs and pesticides. Ensure the quality of your products with our comprehensive contaminants and residues testing options.
Meet the Author
Associate Product Manager, Chemistry, Mérieux NutriSciences
Nick Price is the Associate Product Manager for Chemistry at MerieuxNutriSciences. His current focus is on the development of analytical offerings in areas of nutrition, pet food, contaminants, and others. Nick received a Bachelors degree in Chemistry from the University of Illinois and is currently pursuing an advanced degree in Food Science. In his free time he enjoys playing golf, spending time with his two dogs, and volunteering on behalf of Autism Speaks.