Levels of cancer-causing dioxins and dioxin-like PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyl) in food have fallen by around 50% over three years, according to a study published by the Food Standards Agency.

The 2001 UK Total Diet Study of dioxins and dioxin-like PCBs in food, which analysed samples from each food group and from 24 different UK locations, showed that the total amount of dioxins in the diet has fallen by around 50% for all age groups since the last survey in 1997. Exposure to dioxins in food has fallen by around 85% over the last 20 years and continues to fall steadily.

Dioxins and PCBs are environmental pollutants that tend to accumulate particularly in foods containing fat, such as milk, meat, fish and eggs. Any potential health risks will only come from long-term exposure at the highest levels found in foods, said the FSA.

The study shows that average adult intakes of dioxins and dioxin-like PCBs are well within the new UK safety limit or Tolerable Daily Intake (TDI). Average intakes by children have also fallen considerably.

Only 1% of adults are now estimated to exceed the TDI for dioxins from the average diet, falling from 35% in 1997. The percentage of schoolchildren likely to exceed the TDI for dioxins from an average diet has also fallen considerably – from 62% in 1997 to 10% in 2001. The percentage of toddlers likely to exceed the TDI for dioxins is now 37%, falling from 97% in 1997.

Strict controls on industrial pollutants came into effect in 1992, which has resulted in a 70% reduction in the amount of dioxins and PCBs released into the environment over the past ten years. The concentrations of dioxins found in individual foods in the 2001 study were all below EU regulatory limits, the FSA said.

Comparisons with 1997 figures show a significant fall over three years in the level of dioxins found in all food types, although this was most noticeable for bread, poultry, fats and oils, eggs and nuts.