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Friday, 6 October, 2000, 09:43 GMT 10:43 UK
Fertility threat for dioxin babies
foetus
Babies exposed to dioxins in the womb could be harmed
Men who were still in the womb during a mass dioxin poisoning scare in the 1970s are showing signs of damaged fertility.

Hundreds of families ate rice cooked with contaminated oil in 1979 in Taiwan, many with pronounced health effects.

But the long-term health effects endured by foetuses whose mothers were exposed to the poison will reinforce evidence of the harmful effects of dioxins called PCBs.

Environmentalists have long been calling for PCB use to be radically cut to avoid the chance of pollution.

Earlier studies following the Taiwanese poisoning in 1979 found that children born to mothers who had been exposed suffered reduced neurocognitive growth compared to their peers.

However, the latest research analysed semen produced by 12 men aged 16 and over.

The ability of the sperm to move about - a key factor determining their likelihood of reaching an egg to fertilise it - was reduced in the dioxin exposed males.

Hamster eggs

In addition, the sperm were less well able to break through the membrane of a hamster egg - which is similar to a human egg in make-up.

The scientists also found a higher rate of abnormally shaped sperm among the samples produced by the men.

This is not conclusive evidence that fertility has been reduced in these men, say the research team, but certainly should lead to further investigation.

The UK government is currently aiming to phase out the use of PCBs as coolants and lubricants in industry.

When anything containing dioxins is burned, the chemicals are released into the atmosphere. If ingested by animals, they accumulate in body tissues, and are passed on up the food chain.

Last year, Belgium was hit by a dioxin scare affecting meat products.

Other health effects of PCB exposure have been noticed by researchers - even this small sample of men was noticed to be shorter than average.

People exposed to PCBs in the air for a long time have experience lung and skin irritation.

Animals given large quantities of PCBs to breathe suffered liver and kidney damage.

A spokesman for Friends of the Earth said that both the World Health Organisation and the US Environmental Protection Agency had recently reduced their safe dioxin limits because of new evidence on health risks.

She said: "In particular, the EPA reported that you are 10 times more likely to develop cancer after contact with dioxins than previously thought."

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See also:

03 Jun 99 | Medical notes
Dioxins
25 May 00 | Health
Dioxin exposure 'cuts boy babies'
03 Dec 98 | Health
Agent Orange blights Vietnam
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