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Dioxins found in chlorine bleached disposable nappies and other paper products in Europe

NEIL BOWES: Dioxins, deadly chemicals, so powerful that they can be fatal in dilutions of parts per trillion, are the centre of attention in Europe today. Two of the biggest paper products manufacturers in Britain have announced that, henceforth, they'll be making children's disposable nappies with unbleached pulp to avoid the health hazards of dioxins. John Highfield in London.

JOHN HIGHFIELD: A dose of dioxin equivalent to one drop of water in an olympic sized swimming pool can be fatal to human beings. The scare over Agent Orange and other defoliants used in the Vietnam War alerted Australia, and the rest of the world, to some of the dangers, potential though they may have been, from these chemicals. The resulting scrutiny of the common agricultural herbicides, 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T, assured that health authorities watched very closely the handling and storage of the deadly by-product of their manufacturing process.

But what's not so widely known is that one of the major sources of dioxins, still, is the industrial process of bleaching paper pulp using chlorine. This has already caused environmental problems around the pulp mills of North America and Scandinavia. Now, scientists have become increasingly concerned that small quantities of dioxins may actually be entering the paper products themselves, especially food containers, kitchen towels, coffee filters and disposable napkins for women and babies. Canada and Scandinavia have already acted, following the discovery of traces of dioxins in the paper containers, and although there's no proof that the minute amounts could be harmful, Dr Andrew Gilman of the Canadian Health and Welfare Department, says the world can't afford to be complacent.

ANDREW GILMAN: The sorts of exposures we're talking about are extremely small exposures, extremely small, no imminent health hazard, but a problem that we want to rectify. We are taking no chances because we have a Canadian policy which says there's no desirable level of dioxin, and when you find a source you work to diminish that source right away. It is a world burden that has to be reduced. We want to turn that tap on.

JOHN HIGHFIELD: But it's babies' nappies which are the focus of the attention today. As a spokeswoman for the Swedish Health Department makes clear, her country acted months ago.

SPOKESPERSON, SWEDISH HEALTH DEPT: Well, here we are in front of the `Narcissus' (?), one of the largest supermarkets in Goteborg, and if we had been standing here a year ago, almost all of these nappies would have been chlorine bleached but, as you can see, all of them are now non-chlorine bleached, and most of them have stickers on them where they brag that `We don't use chlorine'. Nobody wants chlorine bleached diapers here in Sweden. They only want non-chlorine bleached and that's the only thing on the market now.

JOHN HIGHFIELD: Ironically, it was the Swedish-based company, Perduce (?), which continued to sell the chlorine-bleached nappies elsewhere that it couldn't sell at home. But here, in Britain, that all changed today with an announcement by Perduce (?) that from the end of the month only near-white, unbleached babies' disposables would be sold on the UK market. Company representative, Julie Bacoldis.

JULIE BACOLDIS: We don't believe we've got it wrong. We know that consumers are just as concerned about their babies' futures as we are, and we are quite convinced that the fact that we are promoting it on our pack and explaining why we are changing colour inside the packs through leaflets means that, having explained that to mums, they will be able to accept that.

JOHN HIGHFIELD: And her prediction was confirmed as, within hours, Britain's market leader, Proctor and Gamble, who also sell products in Australia, made an urgent announcement that from next month it, too, would be switching to non-chlorine bleached disposable nappies. It is probably only a matter of time before the news reaches Australia.

NEIL BOWES: John Highfield in London.