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Greenpeace says dioxin risk wider than tainted food

Reuters Story - June 04, 1999 14:11

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By Gillian Handyside

BRUSSELS, June 4 (Reuters) - Environmental group Greenpeace said on Friday it believed the risk of dioxin contamination was wider than people thought as Belgian authorities struggled with a crisis over food tainted with the cancer-causing chemical.

"This is not an isolated case. There were at least two similar cases last year," Greenpeace's Axel Singhofen said.

The 15-nation European Union imposed a de facto ban on imports of Brazilian citrus pulp -- a key ingredient in cattle feed -- a year ago after scientists traced worrying levels of dioxin in some European milk back to shipments from Brazil.

In February 1998 French authorities closed three waste incinerators in the north of the country after excessive levels of dioxins were detected in the milk of nearby dairy cows.

Greenpeace said dioxins did not just enter the food chain directly, through contaminated feed, but also indirectly via air, water and soil pollution.

"There's a long-term problem because of constant emissions of dioxins into the environment," Greenpeace's Jan Turf said.

Dioxins can be formed when chlorinated substances are burnt in the presence of carbon and oxygen, such as during the incineration of plastics like PVC (vinyl) or in the manufacture of chemicals, pesticides, steel and paints.

They can also be spewed out during accidents like the explosion at a factory in Seveso, Italy, in 1976 when dioxins killed animals and caused skin diseases among local residents.

These toxic chemicals -- which are also thought to be potent hormone disruptors -- remain in fatty tissue in the body for years and can pass from mother to infant during breast feeding.

The latest World Health Organisation figures on toxins in breast milk, conducted in 19 mainly European countries in 1994, showed Belgian women had the second highest level of dioxins.

A recent study by Liege-based research organisation ISEP showed one incinerator in Belgium's central-south Wallonia region, which has no legal limits on dioxins, was emitting 200 times the legal threshold that will be introduced in 2001.

Europe-wide laws exist to prevent dangerous pollution. But the European Union's executive Commission says the rules are not always respected.

"We are currently pursuing around 30 (court) cases against Belgium," one European Commission official said.

These included infringements of EU laws on waste incineration, PCBs (highly toxic chlorinates), other hazardous chemicals and used batteries. Belgium was also in contravention of the EU's "Seveso" law, designed to prevent and contain accidents involving dangerous substances such as that which occurred in the Italian town, the Commission official said.

"Belgium has one of the worst records as far as violating EU environmental laws are concerned," he added.

But he warned other EU states -- some of which have banned Belgian meat imports because of the health scare -- had no reason for complacency, adding that France, Germany and Spain were facing court action for a similar number of violations.

"We are upgrading our incinerators and doing a survey of dioxin emissions from all industrial sources in preparation for new European laws," said Pascal van der Wegen, a senior official in Belgium's Walloon regional government.

"It takes more time to transpose European law in a federal country like Belgium," he said, adding that Belgium regularly monitored cattle grazing near incinerators for dioxin levels.

Copyright 1999 Reuters Limited. All rights reserved. Republication or redistribution of Reuters content is expressly prohibited without the prior written consent of Reuters. Reuters shall not be liable for any errors or delays in the content, or for any actions taken in reliance thereon.

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