REYKJAVIK, Feb 26 2011 (IPS) – In the northwestern Icelandic town of Isafjordur, milk is causing pandemonium. A local milk marketing board recently tested one farm’s milk for the presence of harmful chemicals. Dioxin, and dioxin-like compounds, were found to be present in amounts higher than the recommended maximum levels, threatening the future of local farmers, and angering residents.
Dioxins are highly toxic compounds produced as a byproduct in some manufacturing processes, notably herbicide production and paper bleaching. They are a serious and persistent environmental pollutant.
The milk that was tested came from a farm called Efri-Engidalur, located in a valley only 1.5 kilometres from a waste-burning incinerator that was closed by the authorities last year due to consistently high levels of pollutants.
“Usually, measurements are done by the authorities, but we decided to test for dioxin because we were concerned about the incinerator,” said Einar Sigurdsson, of MS Iceland Dairies.
As a result of the findings, the Icelandic Food and Veterinary Authority (IFVA) decided to test samples of milk, meat, and hay from several farms in the surrounding area.
The findings revealed increased levels of dioxin and dioxin-like compounds in the majority of the samples. Dioxin-like compounds are polychlorinated biphenyls, commonly known as dioxin-like PCBs, which behave like dioxin, so are generally classified with it in terms of toxicity.
In 2007, the Environment Agency of Iceland (EAI) measured emissions from waste incinerators. According to regulations of the European Commission, the executive arm of the European Union, maximum emission levels of dioxin should not exceed 0.1 ng/m3.
“The emission levels are measured per cubic metre in the exhaust from the incinerator rather than total emissions. As a result, an incinerator that burns more waste but has a lower emission measurement can emit more dioxin,” explains Sigridur Kristjansdottir from the EAI.
However, in 2007, emission levels in Isafjordur were 21 times the maximum EC regulation level.
In addition, concern has arisen in the small town of Kirkjubaejarklaustur, in South Iceland, where dioxin levels were recorded at 95 times the maximum exposure level in 2007. And in Vestmannaeyjar, an island just off South Iceland, the dioxin level was 84 times the maximum exposure standard.
In all three cases, the results were sent to the Ministry for the Environment but were not released publicly.
In Kirkjubaejarklaustur, the waste incinerator is located in the same complex as the local school, sports centre, swimming pool, and music school. The original plan had been to use the waste heat from the incinerator to heat the surrounding buildings.
When the dioxin level was revealed, local residents became angry and demanded that the plant not operate while children were at school. One parent, civil engineer Oddur Bjarni Thorarensen, took his children out of the school.
But, according to Kristjansdottir from the EAI, “in the environmental impact assessment for the plant, the pollution dispersal forecast indicated that maximum pollution levels would be expected to occur at a distance of about 150 metres from the plant (relative to open areas).”
“This assessment was one of the items produced to justify that pollution levels would not be expected to be high in the immediate vicinity of the incinerator,” says Kristjansdottir.
The Infectious Disease Control division of the Directorate of Health has decided to monitor residents of Isafjordur, Kirkjubaejarklaustur, and Vestmannaeyjar for the presence of dioxin.
“It is possible to scan for possible dioxin by testing hair for lead. A positive test indicates that dioxin may be present,” says Gudrun Sigmundsdottir, head of the department.
Steingrimur Jonsson, the farmer from Efri-Engidalur, says that no one has come yet to take samples from him. He and his family have regularly been consuming milk and meat from their 20 cows and 80 sheep.
“But since dioxin was found in the milk, we have stopped eating our produce,” he said.
Dioxin is an accumulative toxin and is not considered to be particularly toxic to humans unless a lot of produce containing it is consumed – as could well be the case for farmers, who tend to eat a lot of home-produced food.
But, if dioxin levels were too high in 2007 at three plants, when did the dioxin pollution begin? And what will this mean for the future of Iceland’s livestock industry?
“They can tell how long the pollution has been going on by taking soil samples, which they have done. But it’s a slow process,” says Jonsson.
He sees no future for livestock in his area. “Not if the milk and meat cannot be sold,” he told IPS.
Last year, 384 sheep were slaughtered near Isafjordur. These yielded about 6.5 tonnes of meat, of which almost five tonnes were sold overseas to the UK and Spain. Because the meat had not been tested for dioxin, all of the lamb has since been recalled as a precautionary measure.
Ironically, in the lead-up to the 1992 Rio conference on Agenda 21, it was Iceland that originally suggested that international controls be implemented to measure the release of persistent organic pollutants (POPS), including dioxin, and their impact on the environment.
But, as secretary general of the environment ministry Magnus Johannesson told IPS, “there was little enthusiasm for this on the international level.”
The POPS Convention was eventually agreed in Stockholm in 2001, while regulation on the release of pollutants from waste-burning incinerators began in the EC in 2003. Operators of incinerators were given five years to conform to the new regulations.
However, “because the four waste-burning incinerators that were operating according to old licences had so little throughput, the EC agreed that these plants did not have to improve their technology while they were operating,” says Johannesson.
The four plants include the now-closed incinerator near Isafjordur, the plants at Kirkjubaejarklaustur and Vestmannaeyjar, and a plant at Svinafell that was not measured for dioxin in 2007. The latter is used mostly in summer for burning tourist waste.