Illness & Conditions - Special Health Issues
What is an environmental illness?
An environmental illness can occur when you are exposed to toxins or substances in the environment that make you sick. These health hazards may be found where you live, work, or play.
Maybe you have headaches that only occur on weekends. Or maybe you began to feel sick and got a rash after moving into a newly built home. These symptoms can be caused by exposure to toxic chemicals. For example:
What causes environmental illnesses?
Exposure to some types of chemicals can cause an environmental illness. The more of the chemical you are exposed to, the more likely you are to get ill. Examples include:
What are the symptoms?
Symptoms of an environmental illness may be like those you can get with other conditions, such as:
But your symptoms will depend on the cause of the illness or disease.
If you think that exposure to toxic chemicals or other health hazards could be making you sick, talk to your doctor.
How are environmental illnesses diagnosed?
An environmental illness can be hard to diagnose. You and your doctor may not know what is causing your symptoms. Or you may mistake your symptoms for another problem. Exposure to toxic chemicals can cause a wide range of common medical problems or make them worse.
An exposure history, which is a set of questions about your home, workplace, habits, jobs, lifestyle, and hobbies, can help you find out what is making you sick. It may point to chemicals or other hazards that you've been exposed to recently or in the past.
Keep a journal of your symptoms, and discuss it with your doctor. It may help you find patterns in your symptoms. This can help you and your doctor find out what is causing your illness.
How are they treated?
Early treatment includes stopping or reducing your exposure to what is making you sick. These things might help:
Further treatment will depend on your symptoms and what is causing your illness.
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Frequently Asked Questions
Toxic Chemicals in Our Environment
Indoor air pollution
Indoor air pollution can affect you at home, work, or even places you visit. It is a common source of respiratory diseases, including asthma , allergies, and lung cancer. It can be worse in winter, when windows are shut tight and less fresh air can circulate.
See tips for reducing indoor air pollution, such as not allowing anyone to smoke in your home.
One of the most common and toxic indoor air pollutants is cigarette smoke. Experts believe about 90% of lung cancers are caused by cigarette smoke. 1 Smoking, or even inhaling secondhand smoke , increases your risk of heart attack and stroke .
Tobacco smoke contains many chemicals, some of which are known to cause cancer. If you are a nonsmoker and household members or coworkers will not stop smoking around you, ask that they smoke only in well-ventilated or isolated areas. Never smoke around children or allow them to be exposed to cigarette smoke, especially if they have asthma or allergies.
Exposure to cigarette smoke causes wheezing, coughing, and extra mucus (phlegm) in many children. Secondhand smoke also can cause fluid to build up in the inner ear, which can cause ear infections . Lower respiratory infections, such as pneumonia and bronchitis , are also risks. Sometimes these types of infections become serious enough to require a hospital stay, especially when they develop in babies and young children. 2
See information on the increased impact of environmental illnesses on children. For example, in recent years, the number of children with asthma has more than doubled, and environmental causes are suspected.
Woodstoves and gas ranges
Woodstoves that are not properly maintained and vented can give off tiny particles (particulates) and gases, including carbon monoxide , nitrogen, and hydrocarbons. Children in homes heated with woodstoves are at increased risk for respiratory problems. Gas ranges, particularly when they are not well-vented or when they are used as a source of heat, may produce nitrogen dioxide, which can cause respiratory problems. Consider changing to an electric stove.
If your gas stove has a persistent yellow flame, it may be improperly adjusted. Ask your gas company to adjust the burners so the flame tips are blue. If you're planning to buy a new gas range or stove, consider one that does not use a pilot light.
If you use a woodstove, make sure the stove doors fit tightly. Burn only aged or cured wood that is completely dry. Never burn pressure-treated wood because it is treated with chemicals.
Have chimneys, flues, and furnaces inspected each year.
For more information, see the topic Carbon Monoxide Poisoning.
Exposure to building materials, products used for home improvement, and textiles can cause health problems. For example, particleboard, insulation, carpet adhesives, and other household products emit formaldehyde, which can cause nausea, respiratory problems, dry or inflamed skin, and eye irritation. Newly built homes and the confined spaces of mobile homes can be a particular problem. Using environmentally safe products—such as paint that contains a low level of or no volatile organic compounds (VOCs) —can reduce the chemical load on your body.
Sick building syndrome and building-related asthma
Experts coined the term "sick building syndrome" to describe acute symptoms that occur only during time spent in a particular building and that cannot be explained by any specific illness or cause. Symptoms include headache, dry cough, dry or itchy skin, dizziness, nausea, difficulty concentrating, fatigue, sensitivity to odors, and irritation of the eyes, nose, or throat. Typically the symptoms improve after you leave the building.
Poor ventilation that restricts fresh air flow inside can be a cause of sick building syndrome. Carpet, adhesives, upholstery, manufactured wood, pesticides, and cleaning fluids can give off volatile organic compounds (VOCs) , including formaldehyde. High concentrations of VOCs can cause cancer. Unvented gas and kerosene space heaters, woodstoves, fireplaces, and gas stoves can produce carbon monoxide and nitrogen dioxide.
Outdoor sources of chemicals can also cause sick building syndrome. Pollutants from cars and trucks and exhaust from plumbing vents and building machinery can enter a building through vents.
Building-related asthma is the term used when symptoms of a diagnosed illness can be linked directly to airborne contaminants within a building. Symptoms include cough, chest tightness, and wheezing. Leaving the building may not immediately improve the symptoms.
Bacteria, molds, viruses, and other biological contaminants
Bacteria and molds can breed in stagnant water that builds up in humidifiers, drain pans, and ducts, or where water collects on carpet, ceiling tiles, and insulation. Humidifier fever is an illness caused by toxins from microorganisms that grow not only in large heating and cooling systems in buildings but also in home systems and humidifiers. Legionella pneumophila is an indoor bacterium that can cause Legionnaires' disease .
Some viruses can survive on household surfaces, such as counters or floors, or they can get spread through the air when an infected person sneezes or coughs. You can help control viruses by:
Pet dander , pollen, dust mites , molds, and rat and mouse urine are allergens that can cause asthma, allergic rhinitis , and other lung problems. Symptoms of illness caused by biological contaminants include sneezing, watery eyes, shortness of breath, lethargy, dizziness, and digestive problems.
Keep your home clean and as free from dust as possible to help reduce allergens. There are many ways to control dust and dust mites in your home, such as washing bedding in hot water to kill dust mites and eliminating furnishings, such as drapes, that collect dust. Also, there are many steps you can take to control animal dander and other pet allergens.
Exhaust fans that vent to the outdoors and are installed in kitchens and bathrooms can help get rid of moisture that allows microorganisms, including molds, to grow. When modern building materials get wet, they provide an ideal place for the growth of molds, which can make asthma attacks worse and may cause other respiratory symptoms. Ventilating attic and crawl spaces and keeping humidity levels below 50% can help prevent moisture buildup in building materials. There are other ways to control indoor molds, such as preventing leakage, removing wet materials, storing fireplace wood outside the home, and using a dehumidifier during humid weather.
Keep humidifiers clean and refill them daily with fresh water. Frequently clean evaporation trays in air conditioners, dehumidifiers, and refrigerators. Water-damaged carpets and building materials can also have molds and bacteria in them. It is difficult to get rid of bacteria or molds. So, if possible, replace or remove water-damaged items from your home.
You can also:
For more information, see:
Many of the products you use to clean your home or use for hobbies and home improvement projects contain potentially hazardous chemicals. Some can be toxic and in sufficient doses can cause eye and respiratory problems, headaches, dizziness, visual problems, and memory impairment. One of the most important ways you can protect yourself is by following the instructions on the label. When you use cleaning or other products, be sure to open windows or use an exhaust fan to provide good ventilation. Never mix household chemicals, such as chlorine bleach and ammonia. Some mixtures can create toxic fumes that can be fatal.
It's better to use environmentally safe products. Vinegar, lemon juice, boric acid, or baking soda can be used instead of store-bought household cleaners. And they are less damaging to you and to the environment.
Be especially careful with products containing methylene chloride, including paint strippers, adhesive removers, and aerosol spray paints. If you use products that contain this chemical, make sure you have adequate ventilation or use them outdoors, if possible. Also, wear gloves to avoid skin contact. But whenever you can, use environmentally safe products instead.
Avoid exposure to benzene, which can cause cancer. Benzene is found in tobacco smoke, stored fuels, paint supplies, and vehicle exhaust. Also, try to limit your exposure to newly dry-cleaned clothing or furnishings. Dry-cleaned goods may emit perchloroethylene (also known as tetrachloroethylene) and trichloroethylene. These chemicals may cause skin rashes, headaches, and dizziness 5 . If your clothes emit a strong odor when you pick them up from the cleaners, they may not have been dried properly and can release more of this chemical. After removing the protective plastic from the clothes, hang them outside, if possible. Consider finding a dry cleaner that uses less toxic chemicals.
Asbestos is an insulating material commonly used from the 1950s to 1970s for soundproofing and to cover floors and ceilings, water pipes, and heating ducts. When it becomes crumbly or frayed, asbestos fibers can be released into the air. Breathing asbestos fibers may cause lung cancer, asbestosis (scarring of the lung tissue), or mesothelioma .
Radon is a colorless, odorless radioactive gas that can enter your home through cracks in concrete walls and floors and through floor drains. The most common source of radon is uranium that normally exists in the soil or rock on which homes are built. Problems show up when the concentration of radon builds up in a home or building. Both old or new homes can have problems with radon even if they don't have a basement.
You cannot smell or see radon. But it's easy to test for it with a do-it-yourself kit available in hardware stores or through the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). For more information, see the topic Radon.
Treatment for indoor air pollution
How you react to indoor air pollutants depends on your age, health, and how sensitive you are to certain chemicals or biological pollutants, such as bacteria or molds. Treatment can be as simple as removing and limiting your exposure to toxic chemicals in your home. In some cases, serious illnesses—such as cancer, heart disease, and respiratory disease—can develop after long-term and repeated exposures. With such long-term exposures, treatment may be extensive, depending on the type of illness.
Outdoor air pollution
Polluted air comes from many sources, such as factories, cars, buses, trucks, and power plants. And there are other sources that you may not think of, such as dry cleaners, wildfires, and dust. Dirty air is a threat to your health. And it also damages crops, trees, water, and animals.
There are at least six major components of air pollution:
Exposure to pesticides may come from residual agricultural pesticides in foods; from household or workplace products used to control rodents, insects, and termites; and from disinfectants and fungicides. The most likely ways you are exposed are small quantities of pesticides in the foods you eat and by direct contact with surfaces (such as plants, soils, or structures) where pesticides have been used.
If not used properly, both workplace and household pesticides can be dangerous. Exposure to high levels of some pesticides can cause headaches, dizziness, muscle twitching, nausea, weakness, and tingling sensations. Some experts believe that some pesticides may cause cancer or damage to the liver and central nervous system. 7, 8 Pesticide exposure during pregnancy has been associated with miscarriage , fetal death, and early childhood cancers such as acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) . Indoor use of pesticides increases children's risk of brain tumors, ALL, and birth defects. Children can be poisoned by stored pesticides, so these should always be kept out of reach. For agricultural workers, exposure to pesticides has been linked with an increased risk of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma . 9
See tips for reducing pesticide exposure in your home, such as reducing your use of lawn and garden pesticides and limiting your exposure to moth repellents.
Mercury in fish
For most people, the level of mercury absorbed by eating fish and shellfish is not a health concern. But in a fetus or young child, this can damage the brain and nerves ( nervous system ). Because of the mercury found in fish, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) advise women who may become pregnant, pregnant women, nursing mothers, and young children to avoid eating fish high in mercury and to eat limited amounts of fish and shellfish that are lower in mercury. 10 For more information, see the topic Avoiding Mercury in Fish.
Chemicals from plastics and other products
Some people are concerned about bisphenol A (BPA). This is a chemical found in some types of plastic (polycarbonate) bottles. A study has shown that people with high levels of BPA in their urine have a greater risk for heart disease. 11 And a group of experts concluded that bisphenol A may have some effect on the behavior, brain, and prostate gland of a developing baby ( fetus ) or young child. 12, 13 If you are concerned about BPA, don't use bottles marked with the number 7 or the letters "PC" near the recycle symbol. You can use glass or BPA-free plastic bottles instead.
In the past, a group of substances called polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) were used in electrical equipment, plastics, and dyes. Although they are no longer made in the U.S., they remain in the environment. Exposure to PCBs has been linked to health problems, especially mental functions such as memory and attention in children. 14 The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) provides information about PCBs at http://www.epa.gov/epawaste/hazard/tsd/pcbs/index.htm.
Chemicals called phthalates may cause problems with the reproductive organs of infants and young children, especially boys. Phthalates can be found in some plastic items (such as some medical devices) and in products such as powders, lotions, and shampoos. 15, 16
Who to Call
If you believe you have an environmental illness , first consider your symptoms. If your symptoms are severe (for example, you are having trouble breathing), you have ingested household chemicals, or you fear you may have a carbon monoxide leak in your home, call your Poison Control Center immediately. Otherwise, contact:
You may find it helpful to create a written exposure history to take to your doctor, to help identify the cause of your illness.
Other Places To Get Help
Last Revised: August 7, 2012
Ettinger DS (2008). Lung cancer and other pulmonary neoplasms. In L Goldman, D Ausiello, eds., Cecil Medicine, 23rd ed., pp. 1456–1465. Philadelphia: Saunders Elsevier.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (2010). Smoke-free homes and cars program. Available online: http://www.epa.gov/smokefree.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (2010). Health effects of exposure to secondhand smoke. Available online: http://www.epa.gov/smokefree/healtheffects.html.
Iossifova YY, et al. (2009). Mold exposure during infancy as a predictor of potential asthma development. Annals of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology, 102(2): 131–137.
Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (2011). Toxic substances portal—Trichloroethylene (TCE): Public Health Statement for Trichloroethylene. Available online: http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/phs/phs.asp?id=171&tid=30.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (2009). A Citizen's Guide to Radon: The Guide to Protecting Yourself and Your Family From Radon. Available online: http://www.epa.gov/radon/pdfs/citizensguide.pdf.
Arcury TA, Quandt SA (2003). Pesticides at work and at home: Exposure of migrant farmworkers. Lancet, 362(9400): 2021.
Baldi I, et al. (2011). Neurobehavioral effects of long-term exposure to pesticides: Results from the 4-year follow-up of the PHYTONER Study. Occupational and Environmental Medicine, 68(2): 108–115.
Fritschi L, et al. (2005). Occupational exposure to pesticides and risk of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. American Journal of Epidemiology, 162(9): 849–857.
U.S. Food and Drug Administration (2004). What you need to know about mercury in fish and shellfish: 2004 EPA and FDA advice for women who might become pregnant, women who are pregnant, nursing mothers, young children. Available online: http://www.epa.gov/fishadvisories/advice.
Melzer D, et al. (2010). Association of urinary bisphenol A concentration with heart disease: Evidence from NHANES 2003/06. Public Library of Science ONE, 5(1): e8673. Also available online: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2800195/?tool=pubmed.
National Toxicology Program, Center for the Evaluation of Risks to Human Reproduction (2008). NPT-CERHR Monograph on the Potential Human Reproductive and Developmental Effects of Bisphenol A (NIH Publication No. 08-5994). Available online: http://cerhr.niehs.nih.gov/evals/bisphenol/bisphenol.pdf.
Braun JM, et al. (2011). Impact of early-life bisphenol A exposure on behavior and executive function in children. Pediatrics, 128(5): 873–882.
Chen A, et al. (2011). Developmental neurotoxicants in e-waste: An emerging health concern. Environmental Health Perspectives, 119(4): 431–438.
National Toxicology Program, Center for the Evaluation of Risks to Human Reproduction (2006). NPT-CERHR Monograph on the Potential Human Reproductive and Developmental Effects of Di(2-Ethylhexyl) Phthalate (DEHP) (NIH Publication No. 06-4476). Available online: http://cerhr.niehs.nih.gov/chemicals/dehp/DEHP-Monograph.pdf.
Sathyanarayana S, et al. (2008). Baby care products: Possible sources of infant phthalate exposure. Pediatrics, 121(2): e260–e268.
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