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Dioxins and ash (1)

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I read with amazement the article entitled 'Ashes to. . . dioxins' (AJ 2/9.8.01).

The AJ is a respected publication, and while I understand that it is not likely that the editorial team will have many experts on dioxins, it would seem to be good practice to check the statements made in the article before publication. I will keep the letter brief but just correct a few points.

Dioxins are highly dangerous chemicals.

The Canadian government, for example, declared them toxic under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act in 1990.Dioxins are on the list of 12 Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) that the international community has agreed to dramatically reduce or eliminate in a United Nations convention that was agreed in Stockholm this year.

Michael Meacher MP, the environment minister, has publicly stated that there is no safe level of dioxins. Dioxins accumulate in the body (that is why they are called persistent) and affect the immune system, hormones and the development of the foetus including intelligence, gender and growth. I could go on, but in the interest of accuracy can I suggest you carry an article outlining the health risks of dioxins - maybe a review of the US Environmental Protection Agency's recent report on dioxins.

As to the dumping of ash in public places, including allotments around Newcastle, again the article's author seems to be misinformed. At least 2,000 tonnes of ash were dumped, which was against the law.

The levels of dioxins in the ash were several thousand nanograms per kilogram of the internationally agreed method of measurement (ng/kg I-TEQ) and at least one sample had a level of over 9,000ng/kg I-TEQ. The normal level of dioxins in urban soil is 5-20 ng/kg. (All figures from The Report on the Analysis of PCCD/PCDF and Heavy Metals in Footpaths and Soils Samples Related to the Byker Incinerator, Newcastle University, 2000. ) The author of your article claims that the government states that the normal level of dioxins in the urban area is 3050ng/kg.

Where is this figure from? Such a level would mean that all the soil in the country needed remediation!

Bill Hopwood Austin Williams writes:

Not only did I read the University of Newcastle report in great detail, I have read many UN reports as well as the books and documents quoted in my piece, and stand by the data in the article. The Newcastle report states that: 'PCDD/PCDF contamination of soil above 40ng/kg I-TEQ was evident in just over one in four of all allotments. . . five allotments had PCDD/PCDF levels near or above 100ng/kg, which is the level where remediation in playgrounds is recommended.' The report also goes on to note that 'the Byker influence [that is, contamination of ground where mixed ash from the Byker incinerator had been used] was combined with evidence of contamination from other sources (compost, deposition), in more than half of those samples showing Byker influence'.

A Basler, Dioxins and related compounds - status and regulatory aspects in Germany, Environmental Science and Pollution Research, 1995 2(2): pages 117-121 sets recommendations for PCDD/PCDF contamination at a target I-TEQ value for soil at less than 5ng/kg and 5-40ng/kg for unrestricted cultivation of foodstuffs. Only above 100ng/kg is remediation (of playgrounds) recommended.

Michael Meacher is quoted on BBC TV's Newsnight programme, as saying: 'The concentrations of processed ash entering into the construction market of the order of 2050ng/kg toxic equivalent. That is roughly the order of concentrations in soils in urban locations.' (taken from BBC transcripts). If you look closely at the text of my article you will see that I wrote 30-50ng/kg, not 3050 ng/kg, as you argue.

I am aware that the Byker ash case is going through the courts and stated this clearly in the article. However, I did not prejudge the outcome by stating whether the actions of Newcastle upon Tyne council, in depositing the ash, were illegal. Finally, I fully recognise that dioxins can be dangerous, but we need to have a balanced understanding of the doses posing danger. I hope that my article goes some way to redressing the knee-jerk reaction to the mere mention of the subject.

I have posted the relevant text from the recent United Nations Environment Programme document, Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs), specifically Chapter 6: 'Substance Profiles for the Persistent Organic Pollutants, clause 6.4 Polychlorinated Dibenzo-p-Dioxins and Furans', on the ajplus. co. uk discussion forum .

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