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Thursday, 25 May, 2000, 23:22 GMT 00:22 UK
Dioxin exposure 'cuts boy babies'
air pollution
Dioxin pollution is a threat, say scientists
The number of baby boys born to parents affected by dioxin poisoning fell significantly, scientists report.

And the younger the person was at the time of their exposure, the less likely were their children to be boys.

The findings have led to calls from UK environmental campaigners to cut the amount of waste incinerated each year in Britain.

This process produces dioxins, toxic chemicals known to pose a threat to health.

Their claims come only a day after Environment Minister Michael Meacher said that the threat to health from incinerators was "exaggerated".

High exposure

The Italian town of Seveso was badly contaminated with dioxins after an explosion at a herbicide plant in 1976.

There are normally slightly more boys than girls born - approximately 106 for every 100 girls.

In previous work published in 1996, scientists from University Milano-Bicocca showed that there had been a relative increase in female births among those most affected by the contamination.

Drop in numbers

Males who had been exposed, but who had unexposed partners, had a total of 88 boys and 103 girls.

Couples who had both been exposed had 113 boys and 137 girls.

Baby boy numbers were reduced
Exposed females partnering unaffected men had 127 boys and 106 girls.

This time around, the scientists looked at the age of the men involved at the time of the accident.

They found that the younger the male was in 1976, the less likely it was that they would have a male child later.

It is not clear why dioxins should have this effect, although it is believed that they disrupt the body's natural hormones.

It is also uncertain why it should affect exposed men, but not exposed women.

Other results, looking at workforces in the US and Canada with high exposure to dioxins, also found a marked decrease in the number of male births.

In addition, the full health effects of the use of dioxin-based defoliants during the Vietnam War are only just coming to light.

Other Seveso studies have found increased rates of certain types of cancer among those exposed to the pollution.

And one particular dioxin was officially labelled as a carcinogen by the World Health Organisation in 1997.

Mark Strutt, from Greenpeace, said that while these studies were evidence that high exposures to dioxin could harm health, few studies into the effects of long-term low levels of exposure had been carried out.

He said that the government's latest strategy on waste, while backing down from a commitment to build more than 100 new incinerators, still did not go far enough.

"Incinerators emit large quantities of dioxins - even having one is too many," he said.

"The World Health Organisation says that it is likely that even the levels we have in our bodies at the moment could be causing adverse health effects."

The government has said that strict European rules governing emissions from incinerators mean that only one part in a billion can be dioxins.

The latest research was published in the Lancet medical journal.

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03 Jun 99 | Medical notes
03 Dec 98 | Health
Agent Orange blights Vietnam
22 Jun 99 | Europe
Belgium in the dock
15 Sep 99 | Europe
Belgian dioxin inquiry begins
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