Under the microscope

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Under the microscope

Our intellectual curiosity for the infinitesimal world is limitless. Scientific development satisfies our desire to seek knowledge. Viruses and prions are seen under an electron microscope. Extremely minute amounts of chemical substances can be analyzed by methods such as GC-MS or HPLC-MS. People in their 40s and over were interested to discover the concept of “micro.” The “nano” terminology was popular in the ’90s, while the scientific prefix “pico” has became familiar to us today.

Nowadays the food industry is under the microscope. They have to contend with vCJD, norovirus, dioxin and PCB, which were too small to be seen under detection technology in the past. In this context, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration abolished the 1958 Delaney Clause [of the Food, Drugs and Cosmetic Act of 1938], the zero cancer risk standard, on the sly.

With the development of analytical chemistry, the most hazardous substance revealed by the assessment processes was dioxin. Recently, some Irish pork has been found to contain dioxins.

Toxins such as dioxin bioaccumulate up the food chain so the dioxin levels for the final consumer are far higher than that of primary consumers. Organisms such as plankton can accumulate these toxic chemicals at much higher concentrations than are found in the water. As the plankton is eaten by fish, the toxic chemicals are further concentrated in the bodies of the fish. Breast milk-fed infants are at the top of the food chain. Naturally, the highest level of dioxin is detected in breast milk, outside of man-made incidents including the Belgian dioxin crisis in 1999.

If a dioxin standard of 2 picograms per gram for pork meat is applied to human breast milk, nearly no breast milk would pass the mark. A survey released in 1999 showed the average dioxin level of human breast milk was 31.7 picograms per gram.

However, despite the presence of dioxins in human milk, breast-feeding should be encouraged and promoted on the basis of convincing evidence of its benefits to the overall health and development of the infant.

Four days after the Irish government ordered the pork recall, the European Food Safety Authority published the statement, “If someone ate an average amount of Irish pork each day throughout the period of the incident (90 days), 10 percent of which was contaminated at the highest recorded concentration of dioxins, the body burden would increase by approximately 10 percent. We consider this increase to be of no concern.”

We don’t know which to envy more - their swift response or their clear conclusion.


The writer is a special health reporter for the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Park Tae-kyun [tkpark@joongang.co.kr]
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