The Belgian PCB and Dioxin Incident of January-June 1999: Exposure Data and Potential Impact on Health

By van Larebeke, Nik; Hens, Luc et al. | Environmental Health Perspectives, March 2001 | Go to article overview

The Belgian PCB and Dioxin Incident of January-June 1999: Exposure Data and Potential Impact on Health


van Larebeke, Nik, Hens, Luc, Schepens, Paul, Covaci, Adrian, Baeyens, Jan, Everaert, Kim, Bernheim, Jan L., Vlietinck, Robert, De Poorter, Geert, Environmental Health Perspectives


In January 1999, 500 tons of feed contaminated with approximately 50 kg of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and 1 g of dioxins were distributed to animal farms in Belgium, and to a lesser extent in the Netherlands, France, and Germany. This study was based on 20,491 samples collected in the database of the Belgian federal ministries from animal feed, cattle, pork, poultry, eggs, milk, and various fat-containing food items analyzed for their PCB and/or dioxin content. Dioxin measurements showed a clear predominance of polychlorinated dibenzofuran over polychlorinated dibenzodioxin congeners, a dioxin/PCB ratio of approximately 1:50,000 and a PCB fingerprint resembling that of an Aroclor mixture, thus confirming contamination by transformer oil rather than by other environmental sources. In this case the PCBs contribute significantly more to toxic equivalents (TEQ) than dioxins. The respective means [+ or -] SDs and the maximum concentrations of dioxin (expressed in TEQ) and PCB observed per gram of fat in contaminated food were 170.3 [+ or -] 487.7 pg, 2613.4 pg, 240.7 [+ or -] 2036.9 ng, and 51059.0 ng in chicken; 1.9 [+ or -] 0.8 pg, 4.3 pg, 34.2 [+ or -] 30.5 ng, and 314.0 ng in milk; and 32.0 [+ or -] 104.4 pg, 713.3 pg, 392.7 [+ or -] 2883.5 ng, and 46000.0 ng in eggs. Assuming that as a consequence of this incident between 10 and 15 kg PCBs and from 200 to 300 mg dioxins were ingested by 10 million Belgians, the mean intake per kilogram of body weight is calculated to maximally 25,000 ng PCBs and 500 pg international TEQ dioxins. Estimates of the total number of cancers resulting from this incident range between 40 and 8,000. Neurotoxic and behavioral effects in neonates are also to be expected but cannot be quantified. Because food items differed widely (more than 50-fold) in the ratio of PCBs to dioxins, other significant sources of contamination and a high background contamination are likely to contribute substantially to the exposure of the Belgian population. Key words: Belgium, cancer, dioxin, food chain, polychlorinated biphenyls, risk assessment. Environ Health Perspect 109:265-273 (2001). [Online 1 March 2001]

http://ehpnet1.niehs.nih.gov/docs/2001/ 109p265-273vanlarebeke/abstract.html

In Belgium, approximately 20 companies collect animal fat from slaughterhouses and melt it into a homogenous substance, which is sold to animal-food producers. It is a common practice to include household waste fat collected at community waste recycling centers in this product. In January 1999, at the Flemish fat-melting company Verkest, 40-50 kg of mineral oil containing polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs, most likely oil from discarded transformers originating from a waste recycling center) was admixed to the fat delivered to 10 animal-feed producers. Between 15 and 31 January, the resulting 500 tons of contaminated animal feed, containing approximately 60-80 tons of fat contaminated with 40-50 kg of PCBs and almost 1 g of dioxins, were distributed to poultry farms and to a lesser extent also to rabbit, calf, cow, and pig breeding and raising farms, mostly in Belgium. Small quantities were exported to the Netherlands, France, and Germany. In Belgium, 445 poultry farms, 393 bovine farms, 746 pig farms (or a quarter of this type of farm in Belgium) and 237 dairy farms (representing 1.5% of the total number of dairy farms in Belgium) used animal feed from the 10 contaminated animal-feed producers. The 500 tons of contaminated feed represent a limited percentage of the total amount of feed produced and used in Belgium, which is estimated to exceed 28,000 tons/week.

Pathologic conditions were first recorded on 4 February on Belgian chicken farms. They included a decrease in egg production and hatching and an epidemic of chicken edema disease. After excluding other causes of the epidemic, samples of animal feed, chicken carcasses and eggs were sent for toxicologic analysis on 18 March. The authorities were informed of the presence of increased concentrations of dioxins in animal feed, chicken, and eggs on 26 April. …

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