Environmental health hazards are harmful substances, conditions, or environmental factors that can negatively impact human health. We can be exposed to these hazards through the air we breathe, food, water, and places where we live, work, and play. Exposure to environmental health hazards, even at low levels over long periods, can cause acute and chronic health complications ranging from minor illnesses to life-threatening diseases like cancer.
As per CDC estimates, environmental hazards cause over 100,000 deaths yearly in the US. While the WHO reports similar statistics globally, claiming environmental risk factors cause nearly 1 in 4 deaths worldwide. Environmental exposures heighten risks of cardiovascular diseases, respiratory illnesses, congenital disabilities, cancers, etc.
Identifying and gaining awareness of potential environmental health hazards in our surroundings can propel us to take action to limit harmful exposures through individual behaviors and public policies.
Some common environmental health hazards experts say we should watch out for are shared below.
Drinking water can become contaminated with harmful microbes, chemicals, heavy metals like lead, and other pollutants. One example of water contamination occurred at Camp Lejeune, a U.S. Marine Corps base in North Carolina, between 1953 and 1987. Due to industrial activities on the base, the tap water was contaminated with chemicals like trichloroethylene (TCE), tetrachloroethylene (PCE), benzene, and vinyl chloride. This contamination led to increased risks of certain cancers and other health effects among those who lived and worked at Camp Lejeune.
In the aftermath of the incident, many victims sought legal aid, emphasizing the need for support for claimants affected by environmental health hazards. Today, drinking water is monitored and treated to control contaminants, but risks still exist, like lead from old pipes.
Consuming contaminated water can cause gastrointestinal illness in the short term. Long-term exposure has been linked to liver and kidney damage, neurological disorders, increased cancer risk, and more.
Air pollution refers to the presence of harmful substances in the air, both indoors and outdoors. Outdoor air pollutants include particulate matter, ground-level ozone, carbon monoxide, sulfur, nitrogen, and lead. These pollutants largely come from human activities like burning fossil fuels in vehicles, power plants, and industrial facilities.
Similarly, indoor air pollutants can include radon, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and secondhand smoke. Exposure to air pollutants can irritate the eyes, nose, and throat and cause coughing, headaches, dizziness, and fatigue. Over the long term, air pollution exposure has been linked with increased risks of heart disease, stroke, asthma, lung cancer, and other cardiopulmonary problems.
The air inside homes, schools, offices, and other buildings can also contain harmful pollutants that impact health. Radon, carbon monoxide, mold, secondhand smoke, VOCs from household products and furnishings, and allergens are common indoor air contaminants. The EPA estimates indoor air is often 2 to 5 times more polluted than outdoor air.
Spending time in buildings with poor ventilation and elevated indoor air pollution levels can cause immediate symptoms like headache, dizziness, fatigue, and eye/throat irritation. It has also been linked to increased risks of respiratory illness, heart disease, and lung cancer over time.
Chemical exposures are a major environmental health concern, as synthetic chemicals are ubiquitous in our homes, workplaces, schools, food, and products.
Heavy metals like mercury, lead, cadmium, and arsenic are toxic chemicals that can contaminate air, water, soil, and food. They are in many everyday usage products, including batteries, jewelry, paint, and even toys. On the other hand, you may inhale or absorb chemicals like bisphenol A (BPA), phthalates, formaldehyde, and flame retardants in many cleaning products through the skin. Pesticide residues on unwashed store-bought food are also harmful and can easily contaminate food items that you eat.
Exposures to these toxic chemicals, even at very low levels, have been linked to cancers, neurological impairment, respiratory disease, endocrine disruption, reproductive harm, and other long-term health effects.
A warming climate is creating environmental health hazards like more frequent and intense heat waves, expanded ranges of disease-carrying insects, poor air quality, food and water insecurity, and more. Extreme heat events kill more Americans yearly than any other weather hazard. Scientists project heat-related deaths will increase as temperatures rise.
Changing weather patterns are also shifting the geographic ranges of ticks, mosquitoes, and other disease vectors, exposing more people to illnesses like Lyme disease and West Nile virus. Moreover, climate change can increase drought, floods, and severe storms that disrupt agriculture and contaminate water supplies.
Implementing interventions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and preparing communities to adapt to climate impacts are some of the urgent public health priorities to keep the situation under control.
Exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun and tanning beds is a major risk factor for skin cancer. Skin cancer is the most common cancer worldwide. There are three types of skin cancer: basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and melanoma. More than 9,000 cases of skin cancer are diagnosed in the US every day, and more than two people die from this largely preventable disease every hour.
Exposure to UV radiation causes DNA damage that can lead to skin cancer. Tanning beds are especially dangerous, with people who use tanning beds before age 35 at 75% higher risk of melanoma. Protect yourself from UV rays by seeking shade, wearing protective clothing, and applying broad-spectrum sunscreen. These are crucial for skin cancer prevention.
Hazardous waste sites, industrial operations, and other contaminated sites can expose community members to harmful substances. This is primarily through soil, air, and water pollution. There are currently over 1,300 Superfund sites in the US requiring long-term cleanup of hazardous waste. Lead, mercury, asbestos, and chemical solvents like TCE are common contaminants at these sites.
Living near contaminated sites associates with increasing risks of certain cancers like leukemia and lung, kidney, liver, immunological, neurological, reproductive, and developmental damage. Identifying and remediating contaminated sites and limiting activities that create pollution can help prevent exposure and protect human health.
Environmental health hazards like air and water pollution, chemical exposures, and climate impacts can contribute to various diseases. While individuals can take steps to limit personal exposures, broader public health policies and business practices are necessary to fully address these ubiquitous health threats. Reducing and eliminating environmental health hazards will benefit public health and save lives now and in the future.