Dioxins, furans and PCBs

This page provides information on how dioxins, furans and PCBs get in the air and effects on health. It includes usual levels in New Zealand and standards to protect human health.

Chemical names

  • Polychlorinated dibenzo-p-dioxins (PCDDs, dioxins)
  • Polychlorinated dibenzofurans (PCDFs, furans)
  • Polychlorinated biphenols (PCBs).

Sources

Dioxins, furans and PCBs are formed by activities such as:

combustion of wastes including medical and hazardous wastes 

exhaust emissions from vehicles

metallurgical industries including metal smelting, refining and recycling 

controlled burn-offs

industrial and domestic coal and wood combustion

uncontrolled and accidental fires including landfill fires

 crematoria 

 

​For more information on the emissions from these sources see the New Zealand inventory of dioxin emissions to air, land and water and reservoir sources: 2011.

Effects on health

Dioxins and furans 

Dioxins and furans can adversely affect human and animal health in a number of ways, including by:

affecting the immune and reproductive systems 

causing birth defects

affecting neurobehavioural development

causing cancer

causing liver damage  

The most noted health effect in people exposed to large amounts of 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin (2,3,7,8-TCDD) is an acne-like skin condition known as chloracne.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer has determined that 2,3,7,8-TCDD is a human carcinogen (ie, it can cause cancer in humans).

PCBs

High levels of PCBs cause:

chloracne  liver problems
skin rashes eye irritation

Animal studies have shown developmental effects and there are reports of reduced short-term memory in children of mothers exposed to PCBs through what their mothers' ate.

We do not know if PCBs cause cancer in people.

The United States Environmental Protection Agency has classified PCBs as probable human carcinogens (Group B2) see the agency's Air toxics website.

Groups that are most sensitive to dioxins, furans and PCBs

humans particularly foetuses and young children
some animals

Incinerators burning rubbish can produce a range of pollutants

Incinerators burning rubbish can produce a range of pollutants, affecting people and the environment. Source: Wellington Regional Council

Standards to protect health

New Zealand does not currently have inhalation guideline values for dioxins and furans. The Ministry has developed seven national environmental standards that ban activities that discharge significant quantities of dioxins, furans and other toxins into the air. 

For further information see National environmental standards for air quality

Usual levels in New Zealand

The Ministry has some information on the levels of dioxins, furans and PCBs in the air and other parts of the environment. Generally, concentrations of these pollutants are low when compared to usual concentrations found in other countries. Dioxin levels in air have been found to be elevated during colder months when more wood is burnt for domestic heating.

Reviewed:
14/01/16