Dioxins, diapers and tampons: should you be worried? Plus easy ways to reduce your risks....

In order to put yourself in a better position we want to figure out what is genuinely a risk to your/your baby’s health and most importantly what you can do about it.

This article is all about Dioxins: super toxic compounds in our environment. Bad for everyone, but particularly bad for conception, pregnancy and early years. The key though (as with everything) is how much we are really exposed and where we can easily reduce our exposure. We look at what they are and how they can hurt and where you can find them. Specifically we look at the fuss around their presence in diapers/nappies and sanitary products and how high the risk really is. Last, but most importantly, we look at some small changes that you can make to put yourself in a better position.

You’re probably tired of reading of yet another thing to worry about - I know I am! However, as they say, forewarned is forearmed and often just a bit of awareness means we can take matters into our own hands. Even small changes can go a long way to reducing our risks -  especially during the vulnerable time of conception, pregnancy and early years.

Here’s what you need to know:

There has been a bit of fuss earlier this year about disposable diapers containing Dioxins click here for the report which caused alarm. As above, the issue here is that Dioxins are not good news - especially for small people. So, we decided to take a look at what dioxins are, what they can do to us, and most importantly where you can get exposure and how you can practically reduce this exposure.

So, what are they? Where are they found?

Big picture: they are a result of industrial/manufacturing processes (which are on the rise) and unfortunately they are pretty persistent in our environment and our bodies. Some of the main manufacturing culprits include chlorine bleaching of paper and pulp (hence the fear around tampons/diapers) and also the manufacture of some of our favourite friends (!) pesticides and herbicides (yep… them again…). The worst offender however is incomplete burning in waste incinerators.

The trouble is, most of these compounds persist in our environment and they also spread out from the source into our broader environment. Unfortunately, they are also fat soluble which means they get absorbed and stored in our body fat. The same goes for animals too. The average half-life in our bodies is between 7-11 years so it’s pretty sticky stuff…

So where do we get most of our exposure?

Diapers and sanitary products have had more press recently, however, the reality is (especially relatively) the majority of our exposure (95%), according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, is via what we eat. This is because of how dioxins get stored - in adipose (ie. fat) tissue in both humans and animals. In a nutshell if we eat animal protein (especially the fatty kind) we can increase our exposure. Think meat, dairy products, fish and shellfish. (4)

Interestingly: plants are less impacted because they lack a particular receptor (aryl hydrocarbon) which fish/animals and humans have that exacerbate the effects of Dioxins tick in the box for a predominantly plant-based diet!

So step one in reducing exposure: reduce exposure to animal products where you can. In fact, research out of California did find that there were detectable levels of dioxin in sanitary/diaper products but that they did not contain the most potent dioxins. They also found that:

  • exposure from tampons are approx 13,000-240,000 times less than dietary exposures

  • exposure from diapers is approx 30,000-2.2m times less than from dietary exposures (1)

(That being said there should be some caution around fragrance found in some products as this is typically giving exposure to hormone disrupting Phthalates- click here for more)

Overall however: it is what we eat we need to be most mindful of.

Let’s break down how and why dioxins can impact us and why this life stage is such a vulnerable one for exposure:

Research has pretty convincingly demonstrated that they are a problem for our health in general:

‘Dioxins are a class of persistent polyhalo-genated aromatic hydrocarbons that induce a wide spectrum of toxic responses in experimental animals including reproductive, endocrine, developmental, and immunologic toxicities as well as carcinogenicity.’ (1)

Translation: not something you want too much exposure to, especially if you’re trying to get pregnant, are pregnant or have a small person. Why? They can make it harder to get pregnant in the first place, they disrupt our hormones, our immune system and can impact the brain development of our children and have in fact been linked to developmental delays. Not only that, it is widely regarded as a causative factor in certain cancers. (1)

We all have a low level of exposure: because they are prolific in our environment, we all have a baseline level of exposure - the key is how much we are exposed and when. Clearly when you’re trying to conceive, are pregnant and have a young baby you are particularly vulnerable so it is a great time to be aware.

Here are some things to think about for keeping exposure down and why:

Conception: Endometriosis, time to conceive and our sperm:

There have been several pieces of research linking dioxins to endometriosis: specifically the fact that higher exposure can worsen symptoms. Click here for more on endometriosis. How reliable is this research? Well, there is quite a bit of compelling research in animals and there is also some in humans (albeit from a smaller sample size meaning that more needs to be done) - but; studies have shown a link - principally, once again, through diet exposure:

‘Evidence suggests that increased exposure to dioxins are associated with increased incidence of endometriosis in humans’ (2, 3)

So: for those with endometriosis, it could be a smart idea to limit your consumption of animal products where possible.

It has also been linked to difficulties conceiving for both men and women. Now, this is an extreme example as it follows an accident in Seveso in Italy in the mid 1970s when a manufacturing plant exploded into an area where almost 40,00 people lived leading to much higher than normal dioxin exposure in the blood - but the following shows the point:

  • For every 10-fold increase in dioxin levels there was a 25% increase in time until conception ie. taking 12 months to conceive vs 10 months for example.

  • Male children who lived through the accident (in the surrounding area) showed decreased sperm quality and lower testosterone. Click here for more as to why this is becoming a bigger issue more generally. (5)

Other studies showed an impact on breast milk with children of mothers exposed demonstrating neuronal activity and functional connectivity between brain regions which can impact language development. (6)  

How to reduce your exposure:

First and foremost: you shouldn’t lose too much sleep over this. Most countries monitor their food supply for dioxins and do control and monitor industrial processes for this. One less thing you have to worry about!

That being said, there has been concern recently around tampons and diapers/nappies - mainly because the process of bleaching these products white with chlorine can release dioxin as a byproduct.

Should you be concerned?

As above, research done in California (1) showed that the amount of exposure we get from these sources is very low vs the amount we are exposed to in food and generally is not enough to cause any harm. Plus, there are processes now (Elemental Chlorine-Free Bleaching) that reduce the production of these significantly. That being said, there are disposable diapers/nappies available now which do not contain these (or added hormone disrupting fragrances: Eco by Naty is my favourite) so, if you really want to minimise your exposure and be prudent (why not!) then there are options out there.

So then, what about food?

This is where we get the greatest exposure. Obviously, if your number one aim is to avoid dioxins then avoiding excess animal sources of protein is the way to go. That being said, we believe that when it comes to conception, pregnancy and early years; a balanced diet is the way to go. Protein is key and we are also big believers in low-mercury fish consumption - the key being: moderation - as fatty fish is an excellent source of omega 3 DHA - click here why this is so crucial to fight inflammation and help neurodevelopment.

Plant based sources of complete protein (ie. contain all nine key amino acids) include: soy, quinoa, buckwheat (soba noodles), hummus, edamame, tofu, tempeh, peanut butter, hemp, chia, Spirulina.

The other little thing you can do is when you’re having meat you can trim off any fat (as that is where you have the majority stored). Obviously avoiding high fat consumption (particularly animal based) is good for health overall. Every little helps!

Ultimately: the Mediterranean diet seems to have it spot on: mainly plant based with fish and meat as a more occasional treat. Of course going organic and wild when choosing your sources of animal based protein is another must whenever you can.

Bottom line: awareness is always a good thing. When choosing diapers and sanitary products if you want to be extra careful then there are lots of chlorine/bleach-free options now, although if that is not an option for you, then for now the risks do not appear to be super high. When it comes to food: being sensible on your diet by reducing excessive exposure to animal based sources of protein (and in particular fat) is a smart move. Particularly if you’re trying to conceive, are pregnant or breastfeeding. Once again however, unless you have strong views otherwise, we don’t like cutting major food groups out of our diets - it's more about balance, being smart on your choices and moderation!

References:

  1. DeVito MJ, Schecter A: Exposure assessment to dioxins from the use of tampons and diapers: Environmental Health Perspectives: 2002 Jan 110(1): 23-28

  2. Mayani A, Barel S, Soback S, Almagor M. Dioxin con- centrations in women with endometriosis. Hum Reprod 12(2):373–375 (1997).

  3. 20. Koninckx PR, Braet P, Kennedy SH, Barlow DH. Dioxin pollution and endometriosis in Belgium. Hum Reprod 9(6):1001–1002 (1994).

  4. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Exposure and Health Assessment for 2,3,7,8-Tetrachlorodibenzo-p- dioxin (TCDD) and Related Compounds: PART III Integrated Summary and Risk Characterization for 2,3,7,8-Tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin (TCDD) and Related Compounds. Available: http://www.epa.gov/ncea/pdfs/ dioxin/dioxreass.htm. [cited 22 November 2000].

  5. Eskenazi B, Mocarelli P, Warner M, Samuels S, Vercellini P, Olive D, Needham L, Patterson D, Brambilla P. Seveso Women's Health Study: a study of the effects of 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin on reproductive health. Chemosphere 2000; 40(9-11):1247-53.

  6. Nghiem GT, Nishijo M, Pham TN, Ito M, Pham TT, Tran AH, Nishimaru H, Nishino Y, NishijoH. Adverse effects of maternal dioxin exposure on fetal brain development before birth assessed by neonatal electroencephalography (EEG) leading to poor neurodevelopment; a 2-year follow-up study. Sci Total Environ 2019; 667:718-729.

  7. Eskenazi B, Warner M, Brambila P, Signorini S, Ames J, Mocarelli P. The Seveso accident: A look at 40 years of health research and beyond. Environ Int 2018; 121(Pt 1):71-84.

  8. Eskenazi B, Warner M, Marks AR, Samuels S, Needham L, Brambilla P, Mocarelli P. Serum dioxin concentrations and time to pregnancy. Epidemiology 2010;21(2):224-31.

  9. Wesselink A, Warner M, Samuels S, Parigi A, Brambilla P, Mocarelli P, Eskenazi B. Maternal Dioxin Exposure and Pregnancy Outcomes Over 30 Years of Follow-Up in Seveso. Environ Int. 2014; 63: 143–148. doi:10.1016/j.envint.2013.11.005.

  10. Yonemoto J. The effects of dioxin on reproduction and development. Ind Health. 2000; 38(3):259-68.

  11. Li ZM, Hernanzdez-Moreno D, Main KM, Skakkebaek NE, Kiviranta H, Toppari J, Feldt-Rasmussen U, Shen H, Schramm KW, De Angelis M. Association of In Utero Persistent Organic Pollutant Exposure With Placental Thyroid Hormones. Endocrinology 2018; 159(10):3473-3481.

  12. Vorderstrasse BA, Fenton SE, Bohn AA, Cundiff JA, Lawrence BP. A novel effect of dioxin: exposure during pregnancy severely impairs mammary gland differentiation.


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This article is for informational purposes only. This article is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice. The information on this website has been developed following years of personal research and from referenced and sourced medical research. Before making any changes we strongly recommend you consult a healthcare professional before you begin.