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For once there's good news on the dietary front. And a few notes of caution.
A report released Wednesday by the National Academies of Sciences found that dioxin, the deadly environmental toxin that seeps into the food chain, has been reduced as much as 76% through stronger environmental regulation.
Even so, the report calls for the government to find ways to further reduce human exposure to the long-lived chemical, which can be especially damaging to babies in utero and infants.
Dioxins are chemical compounds that enter the environment primarily from incinerators burning chlorinated wastes. They enter the food chain when animals and fish eat plants that have been contaminated by air pollution. Animals store the toxin in body fat, so fatty meats, fish and full-fat dairy products are the primary sources of exposure for humans.
High levels of dioxins have been linked to endocrine-related conditions, developmental problems and susceptibility to cancer. In babies, dioxin can cause neurological problems. Women store up dioxin in their fat over years, exposing their children via the placenta before birth and through breast feeding afterward.
Because breast feeding is so good for babies, the report instead recommends that the best way to reduce babies' risk is to reduce girls' and women's exposure early in life, so less of the toxin accumulates in their bodies.
''We're trying to walk a fine, balanced line,'' says NAS committee member Michael Taylor, with Resources for the Future, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank that focuses on environmental issues. ''It's worth reducing exposure for a lot of reasons, but we don't want to scare mothers into not breast feeding.''
Dioxins are just one more reason to follow the U.S. Department of Agriculture's dietary recommendations for reducing saturated fat, says Robert Lawrence of Johns Hopkins University, who chaired the NAS committee. ''If you're doing it for cardiovascular disease prevention purposes, you're going to get as a fringe benefit the reduction of these persistent organic pollutants.''
The report also recommends that the National School Lunch Program increase the availability of low-fat milk and foods low in animal fat and that participants in the federal Special Supplemental Food Program for Women, Infants and Children be encouraged to choose low-fat milk and foods.
Dan Murphy of the American Meat Institute says that telling people to make sensible dietary choices isn't news. ''It's foolish, in our opinion, to talk about . . . going beyond the conservative dietary guidelines because, let's face it, the average American isn't even coming close to the dietary guidelines.''
The report was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the Food and Drug Administration and the USDA.
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