- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 16, 2004

Dioxin, the chemical blamed in the recent poisoning and facial disfigurement of Ukrainian opposition presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko, was described yesterday by a top U.S. Environmental Protection Agency researcher as the “most toxic man-made” substance ever produced.

“Dioxins are very persistent both in the environment and in the body. Once they get into the environment and the body, they do not go away quickly,” said Linda Birnbaum, director of the EPA’s experimental toxicology division and a world-renowned dioxin expert.

The most toxic member of the dioxin family — and the one some suspect was responsible for harming Mr. Yushchenko — is a carcinogen known as 2,3,7,8-TCDD, or TCDD. That same dioxin was part of the defoliant, Agent Orange, which is thought to have sickened thousands of U.S. troops and Vietnamese residents during the Vietnam War.

Forty-five pounds of dioxins were released in an industrial explosion in Seveso, Italy, in 1976. All 193 victims developed the same type of painful and disfiguring acne that struck Mr. Yushchenko, who is locked in a bitter presidential campaign against Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych.

This acne is known as chloracne, an extreme reaction of the skin to chlorine. Dioxins are chlorinated agents, and chloracne can result from swallowing, inhaling or touching the responsible agent.

Mr. Yushchenko told the Associated Press yesterday that he was sure he was poisoned by the Ukrainian government and believes it most likely happened at a dinner that he had Sept. 5 with the country’s top security service officials.

“That was the only place where no one from my team was present and no precautions were taken concerning the food,” he said. “It was a project of political murder, prepared by the authorities.”

Miss Birnbaum said food is the “most common source” of dioxin poisoning in humans.

Mr. Yushchenko also warned yesterday that the government is preparing a new series of measures to disrupt the presidential election runoff on Dec. 26.

“There is not a 100 percent guarantee that the election will take place,” he said during a press conference in Kiev. “I know of provocations being prepared in the eastern regions.”

He did not elaborate on what sort of trouble could be planned in eastern Ukraine, where Mr. Yanukovych enjoys strong support.

Although it’s recognized that dioxins also can cause cardiovascular disease, destroy the liver and increase the risk of diabetes, chloracne is the most common symptom of dioxin poisoning.

Miss Birnbaum says it is known that a “dioxin-like chemical” caused Mr. Yushchenko’s illness, but it will take additional lab tests to determine whether the culprit was TCDD or another chemical, such as a PCB (polychlorinated biphenyl), which is also carcinogenic.

She called the Yushchenko case suspicious and said it would be most unusual “for a person all of a sudden to have those very high levels” of contamination without some provocation. Tests have revealed that Mr. Yushchenko’s blood contained 6,000 times the normal concentration of dioxin.

Miss Birnbaum also said there is growing evidence that dioxin levels — even those at the high end of the normal range — might disrupt metabolism and increase the risk of cancer, diabetes and impaired cognitive development.

Although chloracne can be reversible, she said, recovery depends on the level of dioxin exposure.

“[Mr. Yushchenko] was clearly given a very high dose … if it goes away, it won’t be quickly,” she said.

Natalia A. Feduschak contributed from Kiev to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.

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