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Population burden with dioxins and other undesirable substances in Germany has fallen considerably

15/2000, 10.08.2000

Data from human milk and dioxin human database now on BgVV Homepage

The burden of the German population with dioxins and other organochloric compounds has fallen considerably. This was documented by analyses of more than 30,000 human milk samples, the results of which have been passed on by the Länd control authorities since the mid-1980s on a voluntary basis to the Federal Institute for Health Protection of Consumers and Veterinary Medicine. The evaluation of this data revealed that human milk samples in 1997 contained on average 60% less dioxins and furans than in 1990. Also the contents of persistent organochloric compounds have fallen dramatically. Samples from 1997 compared with 1980 only had 30% of the contents of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and around 5-15% of the contents of chlorinated plant protection products like for instance DDT and hexachlorobenzene (HCB). The content of musk xylene in human milk has fallen by around 70% since 1993 whereas the proportion of musk ketone has remained comparatively stable. Both substances were or are widely used in detergents and cosmetics as fragrances.

Together with the federal Länder BgVV is establishing a human milk and dioxin database, in which the contents of persistent residues in human milk identified by the federal Länder are compiled and documented and possible contributory factors identified. The documentation pursues various goals:

Firstly, human milk is a highly suitable bioindicator in order to observe the real burden of the population with undesirable fat-soluble substances. The downward trends for these substances listed show that measures taken in the past have helped to improve the burden situation of the population. Mention should be made here for instance of the ban on the production and use of numerous organochloric compounds as pesticides (plant protection products), the PCB ban regulations and the provisions and measures to reduce dioxin input from industry, motor vehicles and other sources into the environment and the food chain.

Secondly, the data of the human milk and human database of BgVV are used in order to evaluate the burden of infants with undesirable substances, to assess this from the health angle and to avoid possible health risks upstream. The current data on the dioxin burden in human milk show that here, too, there has been a major drop of around 60%. A four-month old, fully breastfed infant takes in on average around 57 pg I-TEQ (international toxicity equivalents) per kilogram bodyweight with human milk in Germany. This means that intake through breastfeeding is clearly higher in the short-term than the tolerable intake laid down by the World Health Organisation WHO for dioxins and dioxin-containing compounds. This, however, is based on lifelong daily intake. According to the current level of scientific knowledge dioxin intake during the relatively short period of breastfeeding does not lead to any recognisable health risk. Both in the opinion of the National Committee for the Promotion of Breastfeeding and of WHO breastfeeding is the best form of nutrition for the infant and is wholeheartedly recommended.

Because of the high fat portion in human milk, other substances which accumulate in the adipose tissue of humans can also be identified in it. More recent findings show that it is advisable to extend the range of substances currently examined in human milk and to observe this development. In recent years new compounds like flame retardants (polybrominated biphenyl ether (PBDE) - studies from Scandinavian countries) and substances which can penetrate the skin from cosmetics (synthetic fragrances like polycyclic musk compounds) have been detected. On the grounds of preventive consumer protection it is advisable to avoid or minimise contaminants of this kind. In order to prevent the further spread of flame retardants, BgVV rejects their use for clothing and other household textiles like bedding.

The report "Trends of residue contents in human milk in the Federal Republic of Germany - establishment of the human milk and dioxin human database within BgVV" (in German) is accessible on the BgVV homepage on as a PDF file and can be read using Acrobat Reader 4.0.


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