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World Health Organization warns about silent toxin in our food — here's what you need to know

The WHO has recommended that governments monitor both industrial processes and food production.

The WHO has recommended that governments monitor both industrial processes and food production.

Photo Credit: iStock

The World Health Organization has released a warning about a member of the dirty dozen lingering in our food, and people of all backgrounds will need to think about their levels of exposure to the silent toxin. 

What's happening?

The WHO on Nov. 29 cautioned against an environmental pollutant known as dioxins, noting that food is responsible for 90% of human contact with the dangerous chemical.

Meat, dairy, fish, and shellfish were the primary means of exposure, and animals higher up in the food chain had increased concentrations of the "highly toxic" compound that has been linked to cancer and can "cause reproductive and developmental problems, damage the immune system, [and] interfere with hormones." 

The organization reported that industrial processes and waste incineration are the main culprits releasing dioxins into our environment, though natural events such as forest fires also play a role. 

Why are dioxins concerning?

The chemicals are slow to break down, taking seven to 11 years to reduce by half in the human body. 

While "background exposure" to dioxins isn't projected to negatively impact our health, as the WHO pointed out, most cases of contamination have been discovered in countries with more regulatory infrastructure. That means a large number of people could be vulnerable to untracked levels of the toxin. 

PCBs, polychlorinated biphenyls, a hazardous chemical that the WHO lists under the dioxins umbrella, also require incineration for disposal because of their potential to contaminate our environment. 

Yet the process comes with a cost. 

A study published by the National Library of Medicine found that burning waste "poses a significant threat to public health." It has also been linked to the overheating of our planet — which in turn has upped the risk of forest fires — and marine life-harming acidification

What is being done about dioxins?

The WHO has recommended that governments monitor both industrial processes and food production to help prevent the formation of dioxins, and its code of practice defines the "tolerable intake of dioxins" for humans, mammals, birds, and fish.

The organization also pointed out that trimming fat from meat could limit your exposure to dioxins, which are stored in "fatty tissue of animals." 

Looking to take things a step further? 

Swapping out meat for a veggie-based meal just a quarter of the time could save you nearly $200 each year, while growing your own food may prevent you from encountering both dioxins and toxic pesticides.  

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