WASHINGTON — The Food and Drug Administration confirmed Friday that it has detected low levels of dioxin in milk, attributing the presence of the highly toxic substance to the process used to manufacture paper milk cartons.
The FDA and the American Paper Institute, which represents the paper industry, said that the nation's major paper mills are changing their manufacturing techniques to further reduce dioxin to levels that would be virtually undetectable.
"During the short period of time it will take to complete corrective steps, milk is safe to drink," FDA Commissioner Frank E. Young said in a statement. "But, because we have the means to virtually eliminate even this low level of dioxin, it is prudent to do so."
Accumulates in Fat
Dioxin, an extremely toxic chemical that can cause cancer and birth defects, accumulates in the body's fatty tissues and is not excreted.
The agency said that the chemical, present in four of 15 half-pint milk samples tested, was found at levels ranging from 0.02 to 0.07 of a part per trillion. The FDA acknowledged that its testing methods were not sophisticated enough to detect lower levels of dioxin.
The FDA estimated that the lifetime cancer risk of consuming affected milk over the next three to five years would be less than one in a million, "even if the paper industry were unable to reduce levels during this period."
But environmentalists insist that even low levels of dioxin can pose a peril, particularly to children. The half-pint paper carton is commonly used to provide milk to children in school lunch programs.
"Any level of dioxin is quite dangerous to human health," said Mark Floegel, a spokesman for Greenpeace.
"All summer long, school boards have been making decisions to buy milk in bleached paper cartons for children to drink," he said. "It's absolutely unacceptable for children, who are growing, to be exposed to a compound such as dioxin in their schools."
Greenpeace petitioned the Department of Agriculture last February to ban the use of such cartons.
Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce health subcommittee, said that he was "extremely concerned" by the findings and would hold a congressional hearing on the subject Friday. Waxman had requested the FDA report last December.
Red Cavaney, president of the American Paper Institute, said that 75% of current carton production is made with a new process that reduces the amount of chlorine used but does not eliminate it. Chlorine is the source of the dioxin.
Cavaney estimated that all of the country's paper mills would be using the new procedure within a year. Further, he said, few cartons from the old process will remain in the marketing pipeline, because the shelf life of milk is short.
"Dioxin is an unwanted byproduct," he said. "We didn't know it was there. As soon as we discovered its potential presence in our products, we set out to see if we could reduce, if not eliminate it."
In Cartons for 2 Weeks
The FDA studied whole milk that had been refrigerated in half-pint containers for two weeks before testing. The milk came from cartons containing paperboard made by all five companies producing such packaging in the United States, the agency said.
The federal government is under a court order to produce a plan for dealing with dioxin in the environment by next April.
Similar findings of dioxin in milk were found in studies conducted last year in Canada and New Zealand.