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What are they?

Dioxins are a group of chemicals that are highly toxic and persistent in the environment. Dioxin is also the common name for the chemical TCDD, the most toxic of this family. These chemicals are persistent organic pollutants (POPs) and endocrine disruptors.

Most dioxins are byproducts of industrial activities, including making pesticides and herbicides. They are also emitted from cigarette smoke, vehicle exhaust, and oil furnaces. They are produced from waste incineration, trash burning and fuels, forest fires, and volcanoes. Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are dioxins.

TCDD dioxin was a byproduct of the herbicide Agent Orange, which was used as a defoliant by the U.S. military during the Vietnam War.

See also: Trash Factories Food and Cooking Air Pollution Brownfield Learning and Developmental Disabilities Reproductive Health Cancer

Where are Dioxins found?

  • Consumer products - cigarettes, pesticides, and herbicides
  • Food – meat, dairy products, fish, and shellfish
  • Air - forest fires, volcanoes, cigarette smoke, secondhand smoke, and industrial activities

How can I be exposed to Dioxins?

Dioxins commonly enter(s) the body through:

Ingestion (swallowing)
  • Eating contaminated food
Inhalation (breathing)
  • Breathing contaminated air, cigarette smoke, secondhand smoke, fuel emissions, and vehicle exhaust

What happens when I am exposed to Dioxins?


Exposure to dioxins can cause:

  • Skin disease and discoloring
  • Liver damage

Long-term exposure to TCDD dioxin can cause:

  • Cancer

Long-term exposure to all dioxins can cause:

  • Reproductive and infertility problems
  • Miscarriage
  • Developmental problems in children
  • Interference with the body’s natural hormones
  • Damage to the immune system
  • Liver damage

Who is at risk for exposure to Dioxins?

  • Consumers
    • Cigarettes and vehicles emit dioxins.
  • Farmers
    • Some pesticides and herbicides contain dioxins.
  • Vietnam veterans
    • The herbicide Agent Orange produced TCDD dioxin as a byproduct.
  • Women of child-bearing age
    • Exposure to dioxin can cause miscarriage and reproductive and infertility problems.

Reduce your risk

If you think your health has been affected by exposure to dioxins, contact your health care professional.

Always wash your hands thoroughly after handling chemicals. For poisoning emergencies or questions about possible poisons, please contact your local poison control center at 1-800-222-1222.

  • Do you, or does anyone in your family, smoke tobacco products?
  • Do you live in an area where the soil is known or suspected to contain high levels of dioxins?
  • Do you use well water?
  • Do you live near a hazardous waste site or an incinerator that releases dioxins?
  • How frequently are you exposed to vehicle exhaust or gas stations?
  • Do you live near a busy highway?
  • If you smoke, quit. Avoid secondhand smoke.
  • Avoid foods high in animal fat, especially locally harvested fish, wild game, and locally grown foods in areas known to have high levels of dioxins.
  • Follow local fish, game, and food consumption advisories.
  • If you live in an area known to be contaminated with dioxin in the soil:
    • Avoid or limit outdoor activities and dusty conditions.
    • Wash dirt and mud from clothing, gardening tools, and supplies.
    • Remove shoes before entering the house to avoid tracking mud or dirt inside.
    • Routinely test well water for dioxins.
    • If your well water has high levels of dioxins, contact your local or state health agency or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for information on how to correct the problem.
    • If you use municipal water, obtain a copy of your municipal water report.
  • Limit your time near idling cars, trucks, or buses.
  • Pump gas carefully to avoid breathing the fumes.
  • Handle pesticides and herbicides with care, and use protective clothing and ventilation.
  • Avoid burning wood or trash.
  • Don’t burn old electrical equipment that may contain PCBs. Dispose of it properly.
  • Don’t let children play near gas stations, idling cars, or busy highways.
  • Don’t let children play in soil that are known or suspected to contain dioxins. Have children wash hands frequently, especially before eating or drinking and after playing outdoors.
National Library of Medicine Resources and Databases
Additional Resources
  • What is Dioxin? (Navy and Marine Corps Public Health Center)

    Resource on dioxin that includes information about its properties and sources, as well as its effects on the health of the environment, humans, and laboratory animals.

  • Chlorinated Dibenzo-p-dioxins (CDDs). ToxFAQs (Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry)

    Factsheet with answers to most frequently asked questions about chlorinated dibenzo-p-dioxins (CDDs) exposure and its effect on human health, developed by a federal public health agency that protects communities from harmful health effects related to exposure to natural and man-made hazardous substances.

  • Dioxins (National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences)

    Information on dioxins, including potential adverse health effects due to exposure, their chemical make up, and links to relevant news, factsheets, and additional resources from a federal institute that investigates the interplay between environmental exposures, human biology, genetics, and common diseases to help prevent disease and improve human health.

  • Dioxins and Their Effects on Human Health (World Health Organization)

    Factsheet on dioxins and how exposure affects human health, including background information, sources and incidents of dioxin contamination, populations at risk for adverse health effects, and activities for identifying, measuring, preventing, and controlling exposure.

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