Government and industry – Killing us softly: Dioxins and human health

Government and industry – Killing us softly:

Dioxins and human health


“No incinerator, no matter how sophisticated, can prevent the release of dioxins into the environment…”

Dr Paul Connett
Civil society has long been calling on government to stop polluting incinerators and to replace them with non-burn technologies. One of the reasons for this outcry over incineration by civil society is due to the formation and release of toxic chemicals such as dioxins into the environment and the effects to human health.


While many Northern and some Southern countries like the United States, France, Japan, Greece and the Philippines (to name a few), have shifted away from incineration because of the serious health and the environmental risks it poses due to dioxin formation, South Africa continues to witness a growing number of proposals for new incinerators. groundWork has during its formation been involved in fighting various incineration proposals around the country. Recent proposals include that of Holmic cement and their nation-wide push to burn hazardous waste in their cement kilns. There is also the on-going struggle to get government to shut down one of the largest operating incinerators in KwaZulu-Natal, the Ixopo incinerator.  It is flabbergasting that government has continued to allow the Ixopo incinerator to operate since audit reports conducted in the past have shown that the incinerator has failed to prevent the release of dioxins into the environment.


groundWork and the Legal Resources Centre (LRC) have since November 2003 being taking court action to stop the Gauteng Department of Agriculture, Conservation, Environment and Land Affairs (GDACEL) and company Aids Safe Waste to commission a medical waste incinerator at its premises in Benoni South. Of serious concern is the fact that government has now given the go ahead for a proposal by Aids Safe Waste to operate a medical waste incinerator in Johannesburg, against the concerns of civil society. This is also despite the fact that an independent scientist sent by groundWork and the LRC to the medical waste incinerator site during a trial test indicated that many conditions set by groundWork, the LRC and the GDACEL were not met, which included measuring for dioxin releases. Was this a strategy by Aids Safe Waste to purposely act oblivious about the science of dioxin formation, and not test for dioxins during the trial burn due to the fact the final report would show unacceptable levels of dioxin formation?


Compared to Aids Safe Waste, waste company EnviroServ Waste Management (Pty) Ltd which had originally applied to government to operate a medical waste incinerator in Shongweni, has subsequently halted the proposal due to public opposition by local communities and environmental activist, and has now proposed to set up a non-burn technology (an autoclave) as opposed to incineration. EnviroServ has also announced at a recent Aloes Environmental Monitoring Committee in the Eastern Cape, that the company was moving away from using incinerators to dispose of medical wastes. Instead, it plans to establish large autoclaves at regional centres to sterilise collected waste. I must commend EnviroServ on considering a shift to alternative technology considering that non-burn technologies emit far less pollutants. This move by EnviroServ shows how powerful civil society can be in influencing decision-making processes, and that some private institutions are taking the concerns of civil society seriously.


The Stockholm Convention on POPs which has been ratified by South Africa targets dioxins as one of the “dirty” chemicals being stressed for ultimate elimination by the global community. Will our government now go against the obligations enshrined in the Stockholm Convention considering that the Stockholm Convention identifies incineration and cement kilns as the first and third most polluting processes releasing dioxins into the environment? Will our government continue to allow its people to suffer from environmental injustices and poor health by continuing to approve polluting technologies because of either poor decisions, industrial domination or both?


Considering the pressures from civil society against incineration and toxic chemical formation such as dioxins, governments and industry must consider substitute methods for treatment of their waste such as looking into alternative technology processes and cleaner production mechanisms. However, while groundWork welcomes the move from incineration to non-burn alternatives, there are several other important processes which need to be happening in parallel.  For example, hospitals need to be assisted in developing waste minimisation plans. Secondly, segregation of waste needs to be occurring in hospitals. Chemical, radioactive and cytotoxic wastes may be forbidden from entering some non-burn technologies such as autoclaves. However, as waste segregation is not being fully conducted in South African hospitals, it is highly likely that such materials would get into the unit, thereby posing environmental hazards.


What are dioxins?

Dioxins are one of the most toxic pollutants known to science.  According to the Environmental Protection Agency, there appear to be no “safe” level of exposure to dioxin. Once dioxins have entered the environment or body, they are there to stay due to their uncanny ability to dissolve in fats and to their rock-solid chemical stability. Dioxins are a global problem moving from warmer to colder climates through air and other media. Transboundary movement of dioxins can occur directly through environmental transportation processes or indirectly through feed and foodstuffs imported from overseas. It is therefore important that action to control them is taken at an international level


How can dioxins get into the environment?

Dioxins are a group of chemicals formed during the burning of industrial, hazardous and household waste. The burning of hazardous waste in cement kilns also produces dioxin. They also are formed during the making of some herbicides and germicides, and the bleaching of paper pulp. Soils near burn areas also may be contaminated with dioxins. Once in the air dioxin can settle on our land and get into our rivers and lakes. Rainwater can carry herbicides containing dioxins from farm fields into surface waters, and some factories discharged dioxin-contaminated waste directly into surface water. In lakes, rivers, streams and ponds, dioxins tend to settle to the bottom and cling to solid materials such as mud or clay (sediment).

How you can be exposed to dioxin?

Dioxins can enter the body by eating or drinking contaminated food, through the air we breathe or by skin contact. Most people are exposed to dioxins by eating contaminated fish, meats and dairy products. When dioxins settle on our grazing lands, animals such as cows feed on these lands and contaminate the milk they produce. Fish may ingest sediments containing dioxins and retain the dioxin in their body fat, and tend to have the highest dioxin levels. As dioxins move up the food chain it gets stronger and bio-accumulates. Dust contaminated with dioxins from burning may be found on the outer surfaces of fruits and vegetables.

  • Some workers such as cement workers may be exposed to dioxins during the burning of hazardous waste in cement kilns. Workers may also be exposed to dioxin during the manufacture of some herbicides, germicides or solvents. Waste incinerator workers and persons who burn household waste may come in contact with dioxins in ash, soil, gases or smoke. Smoke and ash can settle on fruits and vegetables.
  • If ash is mixed into the garden soil, chemicals can be taken up by crops

Industrial accidents have been responsible for most cases of dioxin poisoning in humans. Fire fighters and cleanup crews responding to electrical system fires, as well as hazardous waste accidents, also may be exposed to dioxins.

How can dioxins affect your health?

Studies have shown that dioxin exposure at high levels in exposed chemical workers leads to an increase in cancer. Other studies in highly exposed people show that dioxin exposure can lead to reproductive and developmental problems, increased heart disease and increased diabetes (National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, 2001).

Short-term exposure of human to high levels of dioxins may result in skin lesions, such as chloracne and patchy darkening of the skin, and altered liver function. Long-term exposure is linked to impairment of the immune system, the developing nervous system, the endocrine system and reproductive functions (WHO, 1999).

When we are exposed to dioxins our body stores these chemicals as fatty tissue. Dioxins are passed from mother to baby during pregnancy and breast-feeding. Dioxin disrupts the way our genes and hormones work. Other health problems resulting from dioxin exposure include:

  • Cancer, diabetes, birth defects, developmental delay, allergies, learning problems, endometriosis, smaller testicle size, lower sperm count, reproductive changes, immune problems.

Examples of Dioxin exposure

  • A study in Japan on two workers who had been employed for over eight years, at what is now an obsolete medical waste incinerator for over eight years, found blood levels of dioxins were still elevated several years after their employment ceased (Schecter et al, 1999).
  • A study in the US at a coal fired incinerator showed workers exposed to higher levels of dioxin in air at the workplace. Levels of dioxin in the workplace areas were higher than in the ambient air concentrations from the region (Pilspanen et al, 1992).
  • A study at a municipal waste incinerator in Germany was undertaken in which blood samples were taken from 56 male workers, and the level of dioxin measured in a combined blood sample. The results were compared to workers who had no exposure to the toxic chemical. Incinerator workers were shown to have 30% higher level of dioxins (Schecter et al, 1991).

How to avoid dioxin exposure?

  • Ways to avoid exposure to dioxins include washing fruits and vegetables before eating.
  • Do not burn household waste that would give off toxic smoke and vapours, instead reduce, reuse, recycle and compost your waste.
  • Oppose any proposal to set up incinerators in your community as well as the burning of hazardous and industrial waste in cement kilns.

The extent of dioxin environmental contamination in South Africa is not known. South Africa does not even have a dioxin testing facility. The fact that this unsafe manmade chemical is allowed to be released into our environment without adequate testing constitutes what is now being acknowledged within the scientific community as the largest uncontrolled experiment in our history. Therefore the continued production and release of dioxins can be seen as violating our constitutional rights as South Africans in that everyone has the right “not to be subjected to medical or scientific experiments without their informed consent”.  Therefore the fact that our government continues to allow polluting incinerators to operate and spew out dioxins into the environment is highly questionable. No doubt, the future sprouting of proposals for incinerators will be a battle between civil-society on the one hand and industry and government on the other. It is however hoped that government will meet the international commitments agreed upon and dispel the myth that government officials simply earn fat pay cheques and drive fancy vehicles.