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What we do personally is crucial to maintaining good thyroid health on an individual level. At the same time, our environment is equally important for individual and collective health. In this article, we’ll look at the impact of environmental exposure to persistent organic pollutants (POPs) – specifically, dioxins – on our thyroid health.
POPs are toxic chemicals that break down very slowly, hence the term “persistent.” When these chemicals are released into the environment, they tend to linger for a long time and, as a result, can accumulate in the food chain, people, and animals. Its persistence is due to its ability to be transported via water, air, or migratory species. We find these environmental chemicals in our food, the air we breathe, some products we use daily, and in waste products such as those from waterproof textiles, furniture, plastics, and electronic equipment.
Dioxins are a group of chemically related compounds that belong to the “Dirty Dozen” group of highly toxic POPs. Dioxins are most frequently found in the food chain, mainly in the fatty tissue of animals. Because dioxins are chemically stable and can be stored in adipose tissue, they can last a long time once they enter the body. According to WHO (World Health Organization), their half-life in the body is estimated to be 7 to 11 years.
To understand how to avoid dioxin exposure, it’s essential first to know the primary sources of dioxins. Dioxins are a main by-product of industrial processes, including smelting (the extraction of metal), chlorine bleaching of paper pulp, and manufacturing some herbicides and pesticides. They can also be released into the environment by uncontrolled waste incinerators and burning solid and hospital waste – – the worst culprits because they are often incomplete burns. Dioxins can also result from natural processes such as volcanic eruptions and forest fires.
Once released into the environment, dioxins can enter the food chain and accumulate in the fatty tissues of animals, including fish, meat, and dairy products. Humans can be exposed to dioxins by consuming contaminated food.
Dioxins are dangerous to our health and organ systems. Dioxins can cause reproductive and developmental problems, damage the immune system, interfere with hormones, and promote the development of various cancers. Long-term exposure to dioxins can impair the immune, nervous, endocrine, and reproductive systems.
We’ll focus here more specifically on the harms of dioxins to our endocrine system, namely the thyroid gland.
One of the most well-known effects of dioxin exposure on the thyroid is the disruption of thyroid hormone production. Dioxins can inhibit the conversion of thyroxine (T4), the inactive form of thyroid hormone, to triiodothyronine (T3), the active form. This can result in decreased levels of T3 in the body, leading to symptoms such as fatigue, weight gain, and impaired cognitive function.
Furthermore, dioxins can also interfere with the binding of thyroid hormones to their receptors, preventing them from exerting their effects on target cells. This disruption in hormone signaling can have widespread consequences throughout the body, affecting various physiological processes.
Long-term exposure to dioxins and their impact on the thyroid can also lead to the development of thyroid diseases. Studies have suggested a potential link between dioxin exposure and an increased risk of thyroid cancer. Additionally, dioxins have been associated with autoimmune diseases such as Hashimoto’s thyroiditis and Graves’ disease, where the immune system mistakenly attacks the thyroid gland.
The relationship between dioxin exposure and thyroid function has been studied for over 20 years. Here are a few notable findings.
Back in 1999, a study found that exposure to dioxin led to alterations in thyroid hormone levels, highlighting the potential impact of dioxins on thyroid function.
A 2011 study found that dioxin exposure was associated with decreased thyroid function in the U.S. population.
In a 2019 Chinese study, researchers looked at the association between POP exposure and thyroid function. Their findings concluded that POP exposure was positively associated with impaired thyroid function and an increased risk of thyroid disease.
A study presented at the ENDO Conference in June 2023 revealed the results of 20 environmental dioxins on thyroid functions. Twenty dioxins and thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) levels were measured in the blood of 2,818 adults. Researchers found that dioxins were significantly associated with high levels of TSH – a common marker for hypothyroidism, an underactive thyroid.
When discussing ways to reduce dioxin exposure, there are two approaches. First, you can do things on an individual level to reduce your exposure. Second, some things can be done collectively to help reduce levels of dioxin in the environment and the human population through policies to protect our communities from exposure to this harmful toxin.
- Trim fat from meat before cooking
- Incorporate a diet full of variety, including adequate amounts of fruits and vegetables, and be sure to wash all produce thoroughly, whether it’s organic or not
- Avoid the use of plastics as much as possible
- Try to avoid creating dusty conditions to minimize inhaling or swallowing airborne soil and dust particles
- Avoid tracking mud or dirt into the house, such as removing shoes before entering the house
- Speaking of entering the house, wash and wipe your paws pets before they come inside
- While gardening, keep the soil moist to control dust
- Designate certain clothes to be worn solely for gardening purposes to reduce exposure to otherwise non-gardening clothing
- Vacuum and dust your home periodically
- Do not burn household trash - leave that to the professionals
As for the responsibilities of local and national governments, here is what is being done and can continue to be done to reduce dioxin exposure:
- Many countries already monitor their food supply for dioxins, which has led to earlier detection and prevention
- Having thorough practices and controls during primary production, processing, distribution, and sale are all essential and part of the proper production of safe food. More than 90% of human exposure is through the food supply, so protecting it is crucial
- Contaminated materials should be properly incinerated, as this is the best available method of preventing and controlling dioxin exposure
- The WHO continues its collaboration and studies with the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) under the “Stockholm Convention,” which is an international agreement to reduce emissions of particular POPs, including dioxins
- The WHO and UNEP continue evaluating and monitoring global breast milk surveys to monitor any trends in dioxin contaminants across the globe
- WHO is also responsible for the Global Environment Monitoring System’s Food Contamination Monitoring and Assessment Programme (GEMS/Food). This program provides information on the levels and trends of contaminants in food (such as dioxins) for over 50 countries
It’s clear that dioxins can have toxic effects on the thyroid gland, disrupt hormone production, and potentially lead to various health problems, including thyroid conditions. Understanding the adverse effects of dioxin exposure on thyroid hormone status is essential so you can take preventive measures. It’s also crucial for policymakers to implement regulations that protect public health. We can work towards a healthier future by minimizing exposure to dioxins and promoting thyroid health.
If you need trusted and reliable care for your hypothyroidism, reach out to us at Paloma Health. Our team is dedicated to providing comprehensive hypothyroidism care through every stage of your thyroid health journey.