Commission reports progress on dioxins, PCBs

The European Commission has published its first progress report on its dioxin strategy.1 The report reveals the Commission's plans and timetable for future measures and reviews the findings of the latest research. One study shows that the use of wastes and by-products in animal feed is a significant source of dioxin exposure to people.

The Commission's strategy on dioxins, furans and dioxin-like PCBs was developed as a response to food contamination incidents, including the Belgian dioxin crisis of 1999. Its three pillars are the limits it sets on levels in food and animal feed - maximum levels, action levels and target levels.

The strategy envisages permanent monitoring of dioxins and PCBs in the food chain across the EU. Member States are recommended to carry out random monitoring of foods and animal feed.

Where products exceed maximum levels they should be removed from the food chain. Where action levels are exceeded, investigations and measures should be taken to reduce contamination.

Maximum levels for dioxins and furans in food and feed were set in 2001 and action levels in 2002 (ENDS Reports 323, pp 51-52  and 326, p 53 ). Target levels have not yet been decided, but will, the Commission says, bring the "large majority" of the European population within the exposure limit of 2 picograms per kilogram of bodyweight per day - the tolerable intake recommended by the Commission's Scientific Committee on Food (SCF).

The limit is expressed as a toxic equivalent (TEQ) of the most toxic dioxin, 2,4,7,8-TCDD.

The Commission promises to set the target levels, both for dioxins and dioxin-like PCBs, by the end of 2004. No limits at all for dioxin-like PCBs were set in 2001 due to a lack of data. However, the Commission now says it intends to set maximum and action levels by the end of the year.

A further goal is to revise all the limits for dioxins and dioxin-like PCBs by the end of 2006. The Commission has also set itself the target of an overall reduction in human exposures of 25% by 2006.

Fish is the largest source of dioxin exposure in food, and the maximum levels reflect this, allowing a comparatively generous 4pgTEQ/kg fresh weight in fish and fish products.

However, the Commission reveals that it now plans to draw up individual limits for different kinds of fish products "in the near future".

  • Non-dioxin-like PCBs: Although these do not exhibit the same mode of toxicity as dioxins, the Commission asked the SCF to provide an opinion on the health risks they pose in 2002.

    This is a highly complex issue and the SCF has joined forces with the World Health Organization and the US Environmental Protection Agency to tackle the task. The timetable is to complete an opinion by the end of 2004.

  • Exposure from wastes and by-products: One of the most significant pieces of research requested by the Commission concerns the extent of human exposure from the use of wastes in the food chain.2 Surprisingly, the study found that one-sixth came from the use of by-products in feeding stuffs, and that accidents or fraud can increase this proportion drastically.

    The finding will put considerable pressure on the animal feed industry, even though there are still very few data available. The Commission plans a follow-up study, which will look in detail at the several priority areas.

    Top of the list is the use of fibrous residues such as straw, dusts from the cleaning of cereals and fibrous wastes from wood paper and textiles. Fish by-products and processing wastes, waste oils and fats, dairy wastes and residues from olive oil processing are also to be studied.

    The next stage will be to sample the wastes and by-products used and investigate manufacturing processes with the objective of finding how input reductions might be achieved.

  • Industrial sources: The Commission reports that it has facilitated the exchange of information of "best available techniques" to abate dioxin emissions in various sectors.

    BAT reference documents have been produced for the large volume organic chemicals industry, other chemicals manufacture, mineral oil refining and the production of textiles.

    Documents are in preparation for foundries, large combustion plant, waste incineration, other waste treatment processes and the disposal of animal by-products.

  • Foundries: The Commission notes that the metals sector remains a major source of dioxins. The industry organised a workshop on emissions from foundries in 2003 which drew attention to the difficulties of identifying effective preventive measures and the lack of experience with control measures.

    The Commission suggests that the first stage in controlling foundry emissions may be to impose mandatory monitoring requirements. A lack of data is "currently a serious impediment to appropriate measures being taken," it concludes.

  • Candidate and acceding countries: Much of the strategy's focus is on the need to bring candidate and acceding EU countries up to speed on reducing emissions. The priorities are to identify dioxin sources, levels of contamination, human exposures and to develop monitoring and abatement capacity and expertise.

    The situation in these countries may be very different from other Member States, the Commission notes, because waste incineration may be little practised and minor sources like coal burning or open burning of waste may predominate.

    The lack of analytical facilities is an obstacle for some countries, the Commission notes. It is promoting the development of expertise through training workshops and a network of interested parties.