Community strategy for dioxins, furans and PCBs

Table of Contents:

Community strategy for dioxins, furans and PCBs

Outline of the Community (European Union) legislation about Community strategy for dioxins, furans and PCBs


These categories group together and put in context the legislative and non-legislative initiatives which deal with the same topic.

Food safety > Contamination and environmental factors

Community strategy for dioxins, furans and PCBs

Document or Iniciative

Communication from the Commission to the Council, the European Parliament and the Economic and Social Committee of 24 October 2001. Community strategy for dioxins, furans and polychlorinated biphenyls [COM(2001)593 final – Official Journal C 322, 17.11.2001].



Dioxins, furans and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are among the primary concerns of the European public on account of their serious and multiple effects on the environment and human health. A number of recent accidents involving these chemical substances have also emphasised the dangers associated with them. What is more, in some cases, concentrations of dioxins in particular have risen appreciably. Although legislation governing these substances exists, the Commission considers that there are shortcomings and that it is becoming urgent to take additional steps to protect human health and the environment.


The three groups of substances are persistent chemicals which are particularly toxic to humans and the environment. They are three of the twelve internationally recognised Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs). POPs accumulate in living organisms and resist degradation. In particular, these three groups of substances have effects which include endocrine disruption, effects on reproduction and carcinogenicity.

For the purposes of this strategy, the term “dioxins” will comprise dioxins and furans. Among the PCBs, “dioxin-like PCBs” merit special attention.


Dioxins are essentially “unintentional by-products” formed by chemical reactions and combustion processes. They are found particularly in soils and sediments. Dioxins are more toxic than PCBs, but the quantities of PCBs released into the environment are greater. The most important route for human exposure to these substances is food consumption. Cancer is not the only effect of dioxins and is not necessarily, therefore, the major effect to be considered; dioxins can also trigger cognitive disorders, immunosuppression, endometriosis and other problems. Similar effects have been observed in wildlife.


Unlike dioxins, PCBs are “intentionally produced”. They were manufactured for decades before the ban on their marketing and use was adopted in 1985, and are now spread in soils, sediments and the aquatic environment. There are two types of uses of PCBs: closed uses (in electrical equipment, for example) and open uses (as pesticide extenders and flame retardants, for example). They are classified as substances which are probably carcinogenic to humans and they have other harmful effects, such as endangering reproduction.

Existing measures

Community measures relating to this problem are already applied. They comprise, in particular, legislation concerning:

  • waste incineration (such as the Directives on waste incineration and hazardous waste, for example;
  • integrated pollution prevention and control (IPPC);
  • control of major-accident hazards (Directive 96/82/EC, which aims at preventing major-accident hazards and limiting the consequences of such accidents, for example);
  • releases to water (the Water Framework Directive (2000/60/EC), for instance);
  • restrictions on the marketing and use of chemicals (Directive 85/467/EEC, which bans the marketing and use of PCBs and PCTs);
  • shipment and disposal of PCB-containing waste (Directive 96/59/EC on the disposal of PCB waste);
  • animal nutrition.

The European Community is also a contracting party to several international conventions on this subject and has signed the Stockholm Convention (POPs Convention).

There are, however, gaps in the legislation and in knowledge as well as problems linked to the implementation of the existing measures.

Objectives of the strategy
The Commission considers that the integrated approach devised by the strategy should permit it to control the problem of dioxins and PCBs in the next ten years. The three major objectives of the strategy are:

  • to assess the current state of the environment and of the ecosystem;
  • to reduce human exposure to these substances in the short-term and to maintain human exposure at safe levels in the medium to long term;
  • to reduce the impact on the environment.

The strategy also establishes a quantitative objective, namely to reduce the human intake levels of these substances to below a certain threshold (14 picograms WHO-TEQ per kilogram body weight per week).

New actions
A series of short-, medium- and long-term actions must be introduced.

Short- to medium-term actions
The following actions should be completed within the next five years:

  • further identification of dioxin and PCB sources
    It is essential to have a complete inventory of sources and more knowledge on the share of the different dioxin sources. To that end, the strategy proposes specific actions for each source which may also be undertaken under the existing legislation, if possible;
  • risk assessment
    An evaluation of the “non dioxin-like PCBs” must be undertaken, measurement methods must be developed to monitor compliance with existing legislation and to assess the effects of measures implemented and environmental indicators must be established;
  • risk management
    Planned measures include prevention, specifically preventing the formation and release of substances, such as through the use of substitute materials; measures to control emissions, such as the promotion of technology transfer and measures to monitor the quality of the environment, such as studies on water, soil and waste;
  • research
    The strategy includes a list of research priorities to be carried out in the areas of the atmosphere, the agri-food industry, etc.;
  • public information
    Action must be undertaken to allay public concern, to raise awareness and to inform the public;
  • cooperation with third countries and international organisations
    The major dioxin sources in the accession countries must be identified, as emissions in those countries are likely to be higher than in the EU.

Long-term actions
These actions are scheduled to take place over a ten-year period. Their purpose is to identify source-directed actions and to evaluate the efficacy of existing legislation and they will include:

  • data collection on the level of dioxin/PCB contamination in air, water (sediment) and soil
    The setting-up of a geographical information system for the selected indicators is one of the major objectives in this area;
  • surveillance of the level of contamination in air, water (sediment) and soil
    Similarly, a common system of monitoring must be set up. The Commission will also examine the opportunity to develop a rapid alert and reaction system in cases of serious danger or acute contamination;
  • devising of other measures relating to dioxin/PCB sources and measures to improve consumer protection, notably with regard to foodstuffs.

Food and feed
Given that food of animal origin is a predominant source of human exposure to dioxins and PCBs, part of the overall strategy is focused on measures intended to reduce their incidence all along the food chain. Some measures are already provided for and were to start being implemented in 2002. These legislative measures consist of three pillars:

  • the establishment of maximum levels in food and feed;
  • the establishment of action levels serving as an early-warning tool for higher-than-desirable levels of dioxin;
  • the establishment of target levels, over time, to bring exposure of the majority of the population to the limits recommended by the scientific committees.

Related Acts

Commission Regulation (EC) No 1881/2006 of 19 December 2006, setting maximum levels for certain contaminants in foodstuffs [Official Journal L 364 of 20.12.2006].
This Regulation sets the maximum levels for dioxins and dioxin-like polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) among other possible contaminants in foodstuffs.

Recommendations and Communications

Communication from the Commission of 10 July 2007 on implementation of the Community strategy for dioxins, furans and polychlorinated biphenyls [COM(2007) 396 – Official Journal C 191 of 17.8.2007].
This document provides a progress report on the main achievements during the period from 2004 to 2006. Several environmental measures were adopted in 2004 on persistent organic pollutants, particularly with a view to implementing international conventions in this area. Progress has since been made, particularly as regards industrial emissions, soil contamination, waste and public access to information. At the same time, as regards food safety, the rules governing the maximum levels of contaminants in foodstuffs and animal feed were updated in 2006, as were those relating to contamination thresholds, the levels of maximum concentration and the rules on methods of analysing and monitoring food and feed. Several research projects have also focussed on this area.

Recommendation of the EFTA Surveillance Authority No 144/06/COL of 11 May 2006 on the reduction of the presence of dioxins, furans and PCBs in feedingstuffs and foodstuffs [Official Journal L 336 of 21.12.2006].
The European Free Trade Association (EFTA) Surveillance Authority recommends that its Member States perform random monitoring of food and feed in order to detect the presence of certain contaminants.
In the event of failure to comply with the limits recommended for dioxins, furans and PCBs, the EFTA Member States are to take the necessary measures to reduce or eliminate the contamination, by identifying its sources and checking for the presence of non-dioxin-like PCBs.
These limits are included in Annex 1 to the EEA Agreement, Directive 2002/32/EC and Regulation (EC) No 466/2001.

Commission Recommendation of 16 November 2006 on the monitoring of background levels of dioxins, dioxin-like PCBs and non-dioxin-like PCBs in foodstuffs [Official Journal L 322 of 22.11.2006].

Commission Recommendation of 6 February 2006 on the reduction of the presence of dioxins, furans and PCBs in feedingstuffs and foodstuffs [Official Journal L 42 of 14.2.2006].

Communication from the Commission of 13 April 2004 on implementation of the Community strategy for dioxins, furans and polychlorinated biphenyls [COM(2004) 240 – Official Journal C 122 of 30.4.2004].
This report summarises the main progress made between the end of 2001 and the end of 2003 with actions for the environment on the one hand and those for food and feed on the other. The main environmental actions focused on knowledge of the current situation in the Acceding and Candidate Countries and strengthening capacity in these countries, research relating to the risks associated with dioxins and other harmful substances, awareness raising and informing the public, the necessary ratification of international agreements, and the dissemination of best practices. In the area of food safety, the main actions covered the establishment of maximum levels, action levels and target levels, as well as certain specific issues.

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