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Dioxin poisoning is systemic injury caused by exposure to organic compounds in the dioxin family. Over 70 chemicals, primarily the byproducts of combustion and other industrial processes, can be found in this family. Many are widespread in the natural environment and can be found in soil and water as well as the tissue of animals. Most cases of dioxin poisoning are chronic, caused by low-level exposure over time, but acute poisoning can also occur in some settings.
In people with dioxin poisoning, the chemical compound interferes with cellular processes. It can readily pass through the intestines and tends to accumulate in the fat, building up in the body over time. One potential source of dioxin poisoning, for example, is breast milk, because it is made by breaking down fat cells which may contain high levels of the chemicals. The kidneys have trouble clearing dioxins, which means that as someone is exposed repeatedly to sources of these compounds, the levels keep increasing.
A variety of symptoms can occur with this type of poisoning, depending on the chemical involved. Organ failure can occur along with endocrine imbalances and damage to the cardiovascular system. Some patients develop a striking symptom called chloracne, where cysts start to develop on the face. People can start to experience fatigue and weakness as they get sicker. If they do not receive treatment and the exposure continues, they can develop fatal complications.
Chronic cases of dioxin poisoning commonly occur as a result of workplace exposure. People may work with dioxins or generate them in the course of completing tasks; they may inhale them or absorb them through the skin. Better pollution controls and limitation of access to areas where chemicals are made and stored can help reduce these risks. Compounds like agent orange, an herbicide used widely in the Vietnam War, are banned or restricted in some regions due to concerns about the risks of dioxin.
Acute cases usually do not come from environmental exposure, although it can happen. It is possible for someone to develop acute dioxin poisoning after ingesting large amounts of purified dioxins such as those used in some chemical products. This may be accidental or could be a case of deliberate poisoning. In these instances, patients develop symptoms abruptly and can experience severe side effects because their systems are quickly overloaded with the toxin, which can shut down the kidneys and cause a chain reaction of organ failures.