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History & Uses of Dioxin

Instructor: Allyn Torres

Allyn has taught high school chemistry, and has a master's degree in curriculum and instruction.

In this lesson, you will learn about a group of chemicals called dioxins. Uses and incidents involving dioxins throughout history will also be discussed.

Scientific Advancements: Friend or Foe?

Let's be clear: science is awesome. Advancements in science have made major impacts on our lives in positive ways (we're looking at you, penicillin).

However, we don't always know what the unintended side effects or by-products of those scientific advancements will be. Dioxins are one of those unintended by-products. Keep reading to learn more about dioxin and the havoc it has wreaked throughout history.

What is Dioxin?

Dioxin refers to a group of 210 toxic compounds made of hydrogen, carbon, oxygen, and chlorine. Dioxins are not intentionally made, but are by-products of human activities (like manufacturing chemicals and burning waste) and some natural processes (like forest fires).

Dioxins are dangerous to our health; they have been linked to cancer and other health problems. Worse yet, they take a very long time to break down and can stay in our environment for decades.

The History of Dioxin Use

As mentioned above, dioxins are not typically an intended product in chemical reactions. Nonetheless, there have been several instances throughout history where dioxins have caused devastation to communities.

Chick Edema Disease

In 1957, millions of chicks suddenly died in the United States. The epidemic was traced back to a dioxin-containing chemical that had been recently added to the chicks' food. In the 1970s, chick edema disease was essentially cured. However, it cropped back up in the 1980s when another dioxin was present in the wood shavings that were used in the chickens' bedding.

Agent Orange

One of the most notorious cases of dioxins causing extensive damage was during the Vietnam War (1965 to 1971). A chemical called Agent Orange was sprayed from helicopters to kill crops and plants in the Vietnam landscape. This was done to improve visibility.

Unfortunately, Agent Orange contained dioxin, and the airborne chemical has caused extensive health problems. Both veterans of the Vietnam War and Vietnamese people are still suffering from the consequences of Agent Orange use. Some of these include soft-tissue sarcoma, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, Hodgkin's disease, and more.

Agent Orange was sprayed from helicopters during the Vietnam War.
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Northeastern Pharmaceutical and Chemical Company

In the 1970s, the Northeastern Pharmaceutical and Chemical Company made a chemical called hexachlorophene. Dioxin was in one of the components of hexachlorophene. The company purified the chemical of dioxins, but they needed a place to dispose of them.

They hired Russell Bliss to remove their chemical waste oil. He had large tanks that he stored waste oil in. However, he typically only dealt with petroleum oil waste. Bliss claimed that he was not informed that there were toxic chemicals in the oil he removed from the Northeastern Pharmaceutical and Chemical Company.

He recycled the oil in his tanks and sprayed it on roads and horse arenas to decrease dust. In 1971, he sprayed the Shenandoah Stables, and 75 horses died. Bliss had also been hired to spray the roads in Times Beach, Missouri between 1972 and 1976. Due to the health problems that ensued, Times Beach had to be evacuated and eventually became dis-incorporated.

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