Setting the Record Straight on Dioxin

08/13/2010 05:49 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In response to Jennifer Grayson ("Eco Etiquette: Help! Am I Doomed By Dioxins?", August 11, 2010), in fact, we are not doomed by dioxin. Although Ms. Grayson is correct in that dioxins are "ubiquitous in the environment" and that it's "virtually impossible to eliminate our exposure," there is no need to be "fearful," as she claims. Dioxins, which are emitted into the environment from natural sources such as forest fires and volcanoes, have existed in the environment for as long as humans have been around.

We have lived with exposure to this compound throughout history. In addition, according to EPA data, U.S. dioxin emissions from man-made sources have declined more than 92 percent since 1987, and a 2009 CDC report indicated that the level of dioxins found in human blood serum has declined by more than 80 percent since the 1980s.

The low levels of dioxin that we are exposed to today are deemed safe by global public health organizations like the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations' Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA). Epidemiological and laboratory studies show no harm at low doses of dioxin exposure and support the views of the respected National Academy of Sciences (NAS) that there is an exposure threshold below which there are no harmful health effects.

Today, dioxin is carefully monitored and regulated. There is no need to resort to extreme diets to be health protective. The United States has one of the safest food supplies in the world, and the current amount of dioxin we are being exposed to through food is so low that it does not pose a health risk.

While individuals can be successful on a vegan diet, it may be difficult to get enough protein and omega 3 fatty acids that are essential for a successful pregnancy and breastfeeding. For example, vegan mothers have a tendency to have lower levels of DHA (a key omega 3 fatty acid almost solely obtained from seafood) in their breast milk, which is extremely important for fetal and newborn brain development.

As Ms. Grayson mentions, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is currently in the process of a health risk reassessment of dioxin and is considering setting an even more restrictive allowable daily level for human exposure. This new EPA proposed exposure level will mean that even more of America might be deemed as consuming too much dioxin which will allow individuals such as Ms. Grayson a platform to further confuse women about the best diet to consume during pregnancy and while breastfeeding.

As a clinician and scientist, making sure that we communicate without using scare tactics, key nutrition information is important for individuals to know how best to eat a balanced diet .

Gary Williams, M.D., is Director of Environmental Pathology and Toxicology at New York Medical College, and was a member of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) Committee on EPA's Exposure and Human Health Reassessment of TCDD and Related Compounds which in 2006 produced a review of EPA's dioxin reassessment titled Health Risks from Dioxin and Related Compounds: Evaluation of the EPA Reassessment.