How Environmental Toxins Can Affect Your Health

The hand of an environmental scientist collecting a water sample from a river.

Environmental toxins are everywhere in our environment. They’re imperceptible and innocuous at minimal levels. However, society’s exposure to these substances has increased. This is due to industrial growth, fossil fuel use and agricultural chemicals.

Interaction with environmental toxins can cause various health problems, from skin reactions to life-threatening conditions. Key statistics highlight why understanding the impact of these toxins on public health is important.

  • Worldwide, environmental toxins affect millions of people each year. The BMJ reports that air pollution is responsible for an estimated 5.13 million global deaths each year. While environmental toxins in the air stand as one of the most significant environmental risks to health, toxins can also be found in water, soil and various synthetic products.
  • The Environmental Working Group (EWG) estimates that around 200 million Americans could have been exposed to per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). Also known as “forever chemicals,” these toxic substances persist in nearly everything humans use — from soils to household items, such as nonstick pans. The health impact of PFAS exposure at low levels is uncertain. However, high levels of PFAS exposure can increase the risk of kidney and testicular cancer and other illnesses, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR).

While avoiding environmental toxins completely is difficult, awareness of their presence and their impacts can help improve public health. Understanding the health impacts of environmental toxins enables public health professionals to implement targeted strategies for monitoring, controlling and developing effective public health policies and personal protective measures.

What Are Environmental Toxins?

Various processes, including industrial activities, agriculture or natural processes, can create environmental toxins, which can pose significant health risks. Environmental toxins can be chemical in nature. Examples of chemical toxins are pesticides, herbicides, volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and heavy metals. Examples of heavy metals are arsenic, cadmium, lead, thallium and mercury.

Particles of these substances typically enter the body through inhalation, ingestion or skin contact. For example, heavy metals like mercury can build up in fish, contaminating them as a source of food. People who eat the fish may get exposed to mercury.

Environmental toxins can also be biological. Biological pollutants include harmful microorganisms, such as bacteria, viruses and parasites. These microorganisms can spread bacterial pathogens, such as E. coli, salmonella, the Zika virus and malaria parasites, to humans through air, water and food.

Another form of environmental toxin that can harm human health is radioactive contamination. Nuclear plants and some medical procedures can expose people to radiation. The health impact of radiation at low levels is uncertain. However, cumulative exposure to radiation from a gas such as radon can elevate the risk of cancer.

Different Types of Environmental Toxins and How to Address Them

Environmental toxins — synthetic (manufactured) and natural — permeate modern society. The advancement of industry and technology has helped proliferate various environmental toxins, posing unique challenges to public health. These toxins, classified based on their medium and composition, include air pollutants, water contaminants, soil pollutants, chemical substances and radiological hazards.

Understanding the relationship between environmental toxins and health risks is critical for public health. Below highlights common health risks related to environmental toxins.

Air Pollutants

Air pollution, a major environmental health risk, causes approximately 6.7 million premature deaths each year worldwide, according to the WHO. This form of pollution includes a mix of particles and gasses that can invade the lungs and bloodstream, leading to health problems, such as stroke, heart disease, lung cancer and respiratory infections. Air pollution comprises both ambient (outdoor) and household (indoor) sources. Air pollutants include particulates, VOCs, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and ozone.

Key components of air pollution include particulate matter (PM), with smaller particles (PM10 and PM2.5) posing the greatest health risks. The environmental and health impacts of VOCs, found in everyday products, include respiratory issues, while carbon monoxide, a by-product of burning fossil fuels, presents serious health hazards.

Water Pollutants

Water pollution, characterized by the presence of harmful substances, such as heavy metals, chemicals and biological agents, significantly endangers public health and ecosystems. Contaminants, such as lead, mercury and arsenic, often stemming from industrial waste, can accumulate in water bodies, posing long-term health risks, such as cancer and neurological disorders.

Pesticides and herbicides, prevalent in agricultural runoff, not only jeopardize human health but also disrupt aquatic ecosystems. The increasing prevalence of microplastics — tiny plastic fragments — in water sources is a growing concern for both wildlife and human populations.

Pathogens, including bacteria, viruses and other microorganisms, are common water contaminants that can lead to acute illnesses, such as gastroenteritis, and other serious diseases. The global impact of water pollution is profound, with around 80 percent of diseases worldwide linked to poor water quality. This statistic highlights the urgent need for effective wastewater management and safe drinking water practices to mitigate the risks associated with waterborne diseases. Water pollutants can severely impact the health of aquatic flora and fauna, leading to imbalances in ecosystems and loss of biodiversity.

Soil Contaminants

Soil contamination, caused by industrial chemicals, such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and dioxins, and agricultural chemicals, such as pesticides and fertilizers, severely impact soil quality and human health. Originating from industrial waste, agricultural runoff and improper hazardous waste disposal, these contaminants can lead to soil degradation and food contamination.

The short-term health effects of contaminated soil include headaches, chest pain and skin irritation, while long-term exposure can damage the central nervous system, harm organs and increase the risk of cancer.

In the United States, numerous Superfund sites, which are contaminated by manufacturing, processing plants, landfills and mining industries, exemplify the severity of soil pollution and its impact on health. This pollution impacts health mainly by reducing crop yields, contributing to food insecurity and rendering food unsafe for consumption.

According to a European Environment Agency (EEA) soil pollution and health report, soil pollution is linked to approximately 500,000 premature deaths each year. Remediating contaminated sites and adopting sustainable land use practices are crucial for tackling soil pollution.

Chemical Pollutants

Chemical pollutants are harmful substances that can pose serious and sometimes irreversible health risks. Over 400 environmental chemicals are measured in human samples, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Some are more dangerous than others.

The effects of chemical pollutants vary from local to systemic, including carcinogenic, teratogenic (causing birth defects) and mutagenic (causing genetic mutations) impacts. The toxicity level depends on the pollutant type and exposure amount.

Chemical toxin exposure can damage organs and systems, such as the liver, kidneys, nervous system, immune system and reproductive system. Certain chemicals can cause chronic diseases, neurological disorders and genetic damage and disrupt the endocrine system. The risks are particularly high for pregnant women and young children, as fetuses can be exposed to chemicals through the placenta and infants through breastfeeding.

Research shows that common chemicals, such as acrolein, acrylamide, perchlorate and phthalates, disrupt physiology and can impair health and elevate the risk of common diseases. For example, phthalates are linked to increased risk of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and lower IQ in children, according to Integrative Medicine: A Clinician’s Journal.

Radiological Hazards

Radiological hazards refer to radioactive substances that can be found in the environment, either naturally occurring or manufactured. One example is radon gas, a naturally radioactive gas that can accumulate in buildings. Radon poses health risks when inhaled — according to the World Health Organization (WHO), radon is a leading cause of lung cancer.

Another source of radiological hazards is radioactive nuclear waste, which refers to radioactive materials that are by-products of radioactive material used by industries such as mining, defense, and medicine and scientific research. These materials can be highly toxic and long-lasting, posing a threat to human health and the environment. Properly handling and disposing of nuclear waste to minimize the risk of exposure and potential harm is important.

Strategies for Addressing Environmental Toxins

Each type of environmental toxin presents distinct risks and challenges, requiring specialized methods for monitoring, control and remediation. Examples are the following:

  • Air pollutants. Monitoring air quality, enforcing emission standards and employing air purification technologies are key for managing these toxins.
  • Water pollutants. Water quality testing, wastewater treatment and pollution source control are crucial for water pollutant management.
  • Soil contaminants. Strategies for addressing soil contaminants include soil testing, contaminated site remediation and sustainable agricultural practices.
  • Chemical pollutants. Managing chemical pollutants requires regulatory controls on chemical use, public awareness campaigns and research on safer alternatives.
  • Radiological hazards. Monitoring radiation levels, enforcing safety standards in nuclear facilities and emergency response planning are key for handling radiological hazards.

To address environmental toxins effectively, public health officials employ various strategies to protect communities by reducing exposure to carcinogens and reducing other health risks. The key approaches include the following:

  • Assess and monitor population health status. This includes determining factors that influence health and community needs and assets. The process involves continually gathering data to understand health trends.
  • Investigate, diagnose and address health problems. To protect public health, actively finding and identifying dangers can improve response strategies.
  • Communicate clearly and effectively. Information and education are key for people to learn about health, the factors that influence it and how to improve it. Communication should be easy, so people can learn about health and make informed choices.
  • Strengthen, support and mobilize communities and partnerships. Working together with community groups and stakeholders is crucial to address and improve public health.
  • Create, champion and implement policies. Policymaking involves planning, advocating and legislating for safer, healthier environments for all.
  • Use legal and regulatory actions to improve and protect public health. Enforcing health regulations and legal standards is crucial for keeping the public safe and healthy.
  • Ensure effective systems that enable equitable access. It’s crucial to develop a healthcare system that’s accessible and fair, providing essential services to all segments of the population.
  • Build and support a skilled public health workforce. Embracing diversity and investing in training and development creates a workforce that can handle health challenges now and in the future.
  • Improve and innovate public health functions. This can be achieved through ongoing evaluation, research and continuous quality improvement. Continuous assessment and innovation in public health practices are necessary to adapt to changing health landscapes and improve health outcomes.
  • Build and maintain a strong organizational infrastructure for public health. A strong public health system is important for managing and improving community health.

Improve Public Health Through Research-Backed Solutions

Knowing the sources of these toxins and supporting policies and initiatives that aim to reduce environmental pollution contributes to a healthier ecosystem for all. Through research-backed solutions, public health officials can develop targeted strategies for monitoring, control and remediation. Understanding the risks is also necessary. These foundational components are essential for developing effective public health policies and personal protective measures.

An advanced degree in public health can be beneficial for individuals looking to learn how to develop comprehensive strategies that can help address the complex issue of environmental toxins and have the knowledge and skills to adapt to evolving challenges.

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Augusta University Online
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