Dioxins in babies at 85 times safety limit

Newborn babies have been taking in 85 times the recommended limit of dioxins in their mothers' milk, the Government admits. Dioxins are among the most dangerous of chemicals, and the Government says it has no idea when it will be able to bring them down to safe levels.

The unpublicised figure – described last night by the Environment minister, Michael Meacher, as "staggering" – is buried in a consultation document issued by his department last month. The report was put out with a press release that praised "the considerable amount" the Government had achieved "in reducing exposure to these toxic compounds". It made no mention of the alarming amounts in breast milk.

Mr Meacher said he would "call in my officials and ask for an explanation". He said the issue should be one "of major public concern" and that he would be considering "what action can be taken".

Dioxins, described in the report as "ubiquitous" pollutants, are suspected of causing cancer, damaging the immune system, and having "gender-bender" effects.

Dioxins are produced by burning a wide range of things from fossil fuels in power stations to bonfires in gardens. They are extremely persistent, accumulate in fat, and build up in the food chain – for example, in cows eating grass contaminated by air pollution, then passed on to people eating their produce. Offal, meat, milk, butter, cheese, fish, poultry, sugar and bread contain the highest concentrations, and Britons get 90 per cent of their exposure in their diet.

The chemicals steadily build up in peoples' bodies – and mothers pass them on to their babies in breast milk. The report says the latest measurements – taken by the old Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in 1993 and 1994 – showed that every day babies aged two months were taking in 170 picograms of dioxins for every kilogram of their body weight. This is 85 times the limit set down in Britain, 170 times the lowest safety level set by the World Health Organisation, and 170,000 times the amount proposed by the United States Environmental Protection Agency to guard against the possibility of getting cancer later in life.

The report added that babies aged 10 months were still taking in 39 picograms per kilogram of body weight a day. And though dioxin levelshave fallen over the last decade, it lingers so long in women's bodies that the report says the Government "is unable to predict with any confidence" when "exposure of breastfed babies" will fall beneath the danger level.

But the Government and environmentalists continue to encourage mothers to breastfeed their babies.

The consultation document envisages developing a "dioxin action plan" to cut pollution, but another report indicates it could cost about £10bn.

Yesterday Mike Childs, senior campaigner for Friends of the Earth, said: "Action is needed as a matter of urgency. The Government has to decide whether it is going to put the interests of its friends in industry or the health of babies first. It is a clear-cut choice."