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Environmental Toxins and Poisons

Exposure to small doses of toxic chemicals may not kill you or make you sick immediately, but the damaging effects of environmental toxins and poisons can accumulate over time and eventually ruin your health. Avoiding sources of toxic substances may allow you to live longer and have a healthier life.

The harmful effects of low levels of contaminants can usually be determined after many years of analysis. Sometimes, occupational diseases provide clues about environmental contaminants. The Romans were aware that lead could cause serious health problems like madness and death, so they used slaves to mine the lead used for their pipes. The expression "mad as a hatter" originated from the neurological damage and mental confusion suffered by workers who processed felt with mercury compounds in the manufacture of hats. In modern times, it has been recognized that inhalation of asbestos, coal dust, cotton fiber dust, and tobacco smoke can result in decreased lung function, cancer, and death.

Household Chemicals

Even if you live and work in a fairly clean environment, you may be exposed to harmful substances every day because many types of chemicals are used in farming, food production, and the manufacture of consumer goods. For example, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) which are used widely as flame-retardant additives in polyurethane foam for carpet padding, mattresses, chairs, sofas and other furniture have been found in the food supply, including fish and many animal fats. The fire retardants have also been detected in humans and in human milk across the globe. Contamination by flame retardants is of concern because they are endocrine-disrupting compounds with the potential to profoundly affect sexual development.[1] 

Poisoning statistics

According to the Centers for Disease Control, approximately 82 people die every day (almost 30,000 per year) from unintentional poisoning, and another 1,941 are treated in emergency departments.[4] Unintentional poisoning deaths in the United States increased by 145% from 1999 to 2007, and they were second only to motor vehicle crashes as a cause of unintentional injury death for all ages in 2007. Among people 35 to 54 years old, unintentional poisoning caused more deaths than motor vehicle crashes. Overdoses of opioid pain medications, such as methadone, hydrocodone, or oxycodone, were most commonly involved, followed by the illegal drugs cocaine and heroin.

While you may not be able to avoid widely dispersed contaminants, you can reduce your exposure to harmful chemicals at home and in your workplace using three basic principles:

  1. Breathe clean air
  2. Avoid skin contact with harmful chemicals
  3. Do not eat food or drink water with harmful chemicals, harmful bacteria, or parasites

You can use protective equipment such as face masks to filter the air that you breathe, or gloves to protect your hands from coming in contact with harmful chemicals. However, you will need to unlearn the things that television commercials have taught you. You will need to think for yourself. For example, advertisements teach you that if the room smells, you have to use a room deodorizing spray or some plug-in gadget that disperses heated scented oil into the air that you breathe. Before you use a room deodorizing spray such as Lysol, think: If the spray really kills the germs, what will it do to the cells of your lungs? What should you do instead? Get rid of the source of the smell and open the windows to get fresh air! Throw out that garbage and clean up the mess with a non-aerosol cleaner that will not contaminate the air that you breathe.

Manufacturers are not required to list the ingredients used in laundry products, air fresheners, and many household cleaners. Most perfumed products such dryer sheets, fabric softeners, laundry detergents, liquid spray air fresheners, plug-in air fresheners, and solid disc deodorizers used in toilets contain many organic chemicals which vaporize and can be harmful. Sensitive individuals may suffer headaches, seizures, asthma attacks, or shortness of breath from exposure to the volatile chemicals. Many air fresheners contain phthalate compounds that have been linked to hormonal abnormalities, birth defects, and reproductive problems.

Here are some suggestions to keep in mind throughout your home:

In the kitchen: In the dining room: In the garage, workshop, or garden: In the bathroom: In general:

References
  1. Ernie Hood, "Endocrine Disruption and Flame-Retardant Chemicals: PBDE-99 Effects on Rat Sexual Development", Environ Health Perspect. 2006 February; 114(2): A112-A113
  2. Marques-Vidal P, Ravasco P, Ermelinda Camilo M, Foodstuffs and colorectal cancer risk: a review, Clin Nutr. 2006 Feb;25(1):14-36. Epub 2005 Nov 14. PMID: 16290272
  3. Anderson RC, Anderson JH, Respiratory toxicity of fabric softener emissions, J Toxicol Environ Health A. 2000 May 26;60(2):121-36. PMID: 10872633
  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. Web-based Injury Statistics Query and Reporting System (WISQARS) (2010). Available from URL: www.cdc.gov/injury/wisqars
  5. Janie F. Shelton, Estella Marie Geraghty, Daniel J. Tancredi, Lora D. Delwiche, Rebecca J. Schmidt, Beate Ritz, Robin L. Hansen, Irva Hertz-Picciotto. Neurodevelopmental Disorders and Prenatal Residential Proximity to Agricultural Pesticides: The CHARGE Study. Environmental Health Perspectives, 2014; DOI: 10.1289/ehp.1307044


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