Dioxins are amongst the best publicly known toxic and carcinogenic compounds since Seveso and have been responsible for many food scares across Europe, such as the Irish pork incident, the Belgian dioxin crisis and the Italian mozzarella scare. These compounds are not prone to breakdown and are included in the group of the so-called persistent organic pollutants (POPs).
Dioxins are generally not useful chemical compounds in any industry, but are a by-product from older technologies producing chlorinated compounds, or are now created as a result from combustion processes or even a wood burning fire. Since these compounds are persistent the levels are accumulating in the environment, and can be found in the complete food chain, from animal to human, especially in fat tissues. Even if all production would cease right now, we still would find traces for many years to come in all kinds of matrices.
Since these compounds are of high concern to human health on a global scale, the World Health Organization (WHO) has established levels at which the dioxins need to be monitored. These levels are translated into European legislation for dioxins in fatty matrices and are divided into
- Background levels– these are the lowest levels that are monitored in food and feed at all times
- Action levels – these are slightly higher levels of dioxins. Should these level be exceeded, the food or feed needs to be monitored much more closely. Immediate action needs to be taken to find the source
- Maximum levels – at this level the food or feed needs to be taken out of circulation immediately
Check out the EU legislation on action levels here.
These levels are different for every matrix and for every region of the world, dependent on the local diet. For example, the levels for fish are lower in Japan than they are in Europe as a consequence of dietary differences. The levels are set by toxicologist and are subject to change. The concentrations are expressed in pg/g fat (WHO- Toxic Equivalency Factor (TEQ). Every dioxin has a different value dependent on its toxicity level, and all need to be added and expressed this way.
The analysis is subject to stringent analytical quality controls on analyte recovery, injection, calibration and analyte identification. Very low levels need to be detected and reported with an extremely high sense of security, since any and every dioxin scare has consequences for not only the lab, but for the farmers and consumers.
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Instrumentation for sample preparation and analysis needs to be precise and robust considering the matrices are extremely varied and generally contain high levels of fat. The software needs to be able to calculate the TEQ values and monitor the many stringent quality controls.
Magnetic sector instrumentation like the Thermo Scientific DFS is the only mass spectrometer capable of meeting all the requirements for all environmental and food legislations. To end on a positive note, dioxin analysis is a prime example of how analytical scientists and toxicologists collaborate on a global scale and monitor our environment and food on a daily basis.
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The US EPA also has a very informative site dedicated to dioxins if you’d like to learn more.