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Reducing exposure to dioxins important - expert

11 October 2001

Media Statement

Reducing exposure to dioxins important, says visiting expert

A leading international environmental health specialist - in New Zealand to speak at the annual meeting of the Australia and New Zealand Society of Occupational Medicine - says measures that will reduce the exposure of New Zealanders to dioxin need to be implemented.

Professor Allan Smith MD, a New Zealander, has been Professor of Epidemiology in the School of Public Health at the University of California at Berkeley since 1983.

He made his comments today as the Ministry for the Environment released its proposed dioxin action plan, aimed at setting limits on the release of dioxin into our environment.

“Dioxins are very toxic and have been linked to significant health problems, including cancer. It is important that we do all we can to reduce our exposure to them.”

Dr Smith says that internationally, countries are reducing the amount of dioxin that they release, as is New Zealand and it is encouraging that New Zealand has taken the lead in assessing population exposure to dioxins.

“A survey conducted here in 1999, which identified what blood levels of dioxin are in the general population, is a model for other countries to follow.”

Dr Smith co-authored a report - released earlier this year by the Ministry for the Environment - that looked at dioxin health risks to the New Zealand population. Dioxin is an extremely toxic substance that is thought to be biologically active at very low levels in the body. In animals, the offspring of mothers exposed to dioxin has been found to have immune suppression, decreased sperm count, and a range of developmental and reproductive abnormalities.

“The concentration of dioxins in the animals in some of these studies was only about ten times higher than present in some New Zealanders. This is not an adequate margin of safety,” says Dr Smith.

A main recommendation of his report was that New Zealand should adopt a precautionary approach and that we should set a goal to reduce the level of ongoing exposure to dioxin.

Dioxin accumulates in the body over time, mainly from the food we eat. Dr Smith says that New Zealand research has clearly demonstrated that the older we are, the greater the

level in our body tissues. He says that dioxin body burdens carried by New Zealanders, even though lower than in North America and Europe, are still too high for comfort.

“The goal might be to reduce body burdens to about half current levels over the next decade, and for further reductions to continue in future years,” says Dr Smith. “This can only be achieved by reducing the level of dioxin that is being discharged into the environment in the first place.”

For more information, please contact:

Dr Allan Smith, email: ahsmith@uclink4.berkeley.edu

Karl Ferguson, media advisor, 04-917-7482 or 025-243-7486


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