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Environmental Health Hazards

Environmental health hazards are a growing concern for all of us. In continuing efforts to make modern society more pleasurable and convenient, more than one million new chemicals are created worldwide each year. In addition to these man-made chemicals, naturally occurring substances, such as carbon monoxide and radon, are also hazardous.

Environmental hazards can be found everywhere — indoors in homes, schools and offices, and outdoors in backyards, playgrounds and other public areas. Although adults and children are both at risk of exposure to environmental toxins, children are more likely to be affected because:

Children have a developmentally appropriate need to explore their environments.

  • Children engage in behaviors that increase their exposure to potentially dangerous substances, such as putting all types of objects in their mouths.
  • Children eat proportionately more food and breathe more air per pound of body weight than adults, thus ingesting relatively more pollutants.
  • A child's body is more vulnerable to injury from toxins because a child's body system is continuously developing and therefore is less able to handle toxin exposures than is an adult's body.

Some of the most common environmental hazards for children include pesticides, metals (for example, mercury and lead) and air pollutants (for example, carbon monoxide and radon).


Pesticides are dangerous to all people, but especially young children. They are found everywhere in the environment, and chronic exposure to them can occur through water, food, air and skin contact. Pesticides are suspected to cause developmental problems and cancer; however, there is limited research about the specific effects of pesticides on children.

The U.S. agriculture industry uses an estimated 900 million pounds of pesticides annually on foods such as fruits and vegetables. You can reduce your child's exposure to pesticides by washing all fruits and vegetables well before eating or cooking. If you are fortunate enough to have a backyard garden, you can grow some of your own fruits and vegetables without using pesticides. Certified organic fruits and vegetables that are grown without pesticides also can be purchased; however, you should wash this produce also before eating it to remove any remaining traces of dirt and organic fertilizers.

Pesticide exposure also can happen in the yard, where pesticides are used for lawns and flowerbeds. Exposure to even small amounts of certain chemicals can cause significant injury within minutes. Be sure to carefully follow the directions on the container for use, storage and disposal. Keep children, toys and pets away from chemically treated lawns and flowerbeds for at least 24 hours or longer as recommended by the manufacturer of the chemicals. Remember that exposure can occur through the skin. Store pesticides in their original containers, locked away, and out of the sight and reach of children see Common Poisonings.)


Common environmental metal hazards include mercury and lead.

Mercury is a natural element found in the environment that can be poisonous to the body, causing damage to the brain, nervous system and kidneys. It also can cause pain and redness in the arms and legs. For many years, mercury was used as a preservative in latex house paints because it helped kill bacteria and fungus. However, it was found that mercury from the paint would vaporize in the air, thus filling a room with potentially harmful particles of mercury. As a result, mercury use in paints was banned in 1990. However, some people still have old cans of paint that may contain mercury. Be safe and get rid of any old paint cans in your home, but especially those cans that contain mercury.

In July 1999, the American Academy of Pediatricians and the U.S. Public Health Service issued a joint statement alerting the public to possible concerns about thimerosal, a mercury-containing preservative used since the 1930s in several vaccines. There had never been a reported case of injury from the tiny amount of mercury in vaccines; however, exposure to large doses mercury in other forms was known to cause brain damage. Although the risk of injury from mercury-containing vaccines was never more than theoretical, most vaccines are now made without thimerosal.

There are other items in your home that may contain mercury. For example, many glass-filled thermometers contain mercury (silver liquid in the tube). Fumes from broken thermometers are a serious health hazard. Many communities have now banned the sale of mercury-containing thermometers. In fact, newer models contain alcohol instead of mercury. Non-electronic thermostats and small button batteries used in various items around the home, such as watches and hearing aids, also contain mercury. Call your local government offices to find out how best to dispose of these mercury-containing items safely.

Lead, another natural occurring substance, was used in paints and gasoline until it was found to cause learning and behavioral problems, low red blood cell count (anemia), fatigue, headaches, abdominal pain, hearing problems, seizures (convulsions), and even coma. Although lead-based paints have not been made since the late 1970s, there are still more than 38 million homes contaminated with lead-containing paint.

Your children are at risk of lead poisoning if they:

  • Live in, or frequently visit, a house or child-care center built before 1950 (when paint contained particularly high levels of lead), or one built before 1978 that has been remodeled in the last six months.
  • Live with someone who has a job or hobby that involves exposure to lead.
  • Live near a smelter (metal processing plant), battery recycling plant, or other industry likely to release lead into the air.

Speak with your doctor if you suspect your family may be at risk of lead poisoning. A simple blood test can be used to determine if you or anyone in your family has been exposed to lead. It is important to identify elevated blood lead levels early to prevent learning difficulties, permanent brain damage or other health problems. For more information, see Lead.

Air Pollutants

Indoor air pollutants, such as carbon monoxide and radon, also should be avoided.

Carbon monoxide (CO) is very difficult to detect because it is an odorless, colorless and tasteless gas. Carbon monoxide is produced when fuel such as oil, kerosene, gas, wood or charcoal is burned. If the appliances that burn these fuels — such as, oil and gas furnaces, gas water heaters, gas ranges and ovens, gas dryers, gas or kerosene space heaters, fireplaces, and wood stoves — are maintained properly and used correctly, the amount of CO produced is usually harmless. However, if these appliances are not working correctly, harmful amounts of CO can be produced. Carbon monoxide also can build up from a car idling in a garage, even with the garage door open.

It is important to recognize the symptoms of CO poisoning. Exposure to low levels of CO can cause flulike symptoms, such as shortness of breath, mild nausea and headaches. These symptoms may lessen or go away after leaving the source of exposure. However, frequent exposure to low levels of CO can cause long-term health problems. Higher levels of CO can cause dizziness, confusion, severe headache, unconsciousness and even death.

If you or your family members experience any of these symptoms, get fresh air immediately. Also, open all windows and doors. Go to the emergency room and tell them you think you may have been exposed to CO. They will be able to test your blood for levels of CO.

There are many ways to prevent exposure to CO.

  • Make sure all fuel-burning appliances in your home are properly installed and routinely checked by a trained professional.
  • Use only vented space heaters.
  • Install and use an exhaust fan vented to the outdoors over gas stoves.
  • Be sure chimneys and flues are in good condition and not blocked.
  • Never leave a car running in your garage, even if the garage door is open.
  • Don't use a gas oven to heat your home.
  • Never use a charcoal grill indoors.

There are CO detectors available for purchase, but these should be used only as back-up protection. Unlike smoke detectors, CO detectors vary in performance, while the technology continues to evolve. Be sure to look for Underwriters Laboratories (UL) certification on any detector you purchase.

Radon is a cancer-causing, radioactive gas that can be found in your home. Radon is produced from the decay of uranium, which is naturally found in soil, water and rock. It is odorless and colorless and can seep into your house from the soil. Radon also can contaminate well water. There are no early symptoms of radon exposure, but it can cause lung cancer. Thousands of cases of lung cancer are diagnosed each year due to radon exposure; only cigarettes cause more lung cancer than radon.

Because we spend most of our time in our homes, the Environmental Protection Agency and U. S. Surgeon General recommend testing all basement, first-floor or second-floor homes for radon. Radon testing is inexpensive and easy. Radon detection kits are available at local hardware stores, or you can visit the EPA's Web site for information on home testing and a list of qualified radon service providers.

Last updated December 3, 2009