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Environmental Illness - Toxic Chemicals in Our Environment

Asbestos

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

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.

Exposure to radon gas is the second leading cause of lung cancer. (Tobacco smoke is the leading cause.) The risk of radon-associated lung cancer is much higher for smokers than nonsmokers.7

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:

  • Ozone. Ozone is a gas that exists at ground level as well as miles above the earth. It's made by a chemical reaction between nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in the presence of heat and sunlight. "Good" ozone occurs naturally about 10 to 30 miles above the earth's surface. There, in the stratosphere, it forms a layer that protects the earth's surface from the sun's harmful rays. At ground level, "bad" ozone (smog) exists. Exhaust from vehicles, industrial emissions, gasoline vapors, and chemical solvents are major sources of nitrogen oxides and VOCs. Add sunlight and hot weather to the mix, and harmful concentrations of ozone may develop. Because of the heat factor, ground-level ozone is a summertime air pollutant that can be dangerous, especially for people with respiratory illnesses. Problems include:
  • Particulates. Particulates include dust, dirt, soot, smoke, and liquid droplets found in the air. They come from many sources, such as vehicles, factories, construction sites, unpaved roads, and burning wood. Other particulates are formed when gases from burning fuels react with water vapor and sunlight. This can result from the combustion of fuels in motor vehicles and from industrial and power plants. Very small particulates that can get into your lungs are especially harmful to your health and may increase your risk of lung cancer and heart problems.8, 9 Particulates in the air you breathe can cause:
    • Asthma attacks.
    • Chronic bronchitis.
    • Coughing and difficult or painful breathing.
    • Reduced lung function.
    • Eye, nose, and throat irritation.
  • Carbon monoxide. In cities with lots of traffic, most of the carbon monoxide put into the air comes from vehicle exhaust. It also comes from manufacturing processes, wood burning, and forest fires. Indoor sources include cigarettes and space heaters. Carbon monoxide reduces the body's ability to deliver oxygen to tissues and organs, such as the heart and brain. It is especially dangerous for people who have heart problems. Carbon monoxide can be fatal to those exposed to extremely high levels. Every year carbon monoxide poisoning is a leading cause of deaths from toxic chemicals. People with carbon monoxide poisoning may have:
  • Nitrogen dioxide. When mixed with other particles in the air, nitrogen dioxide can often be seen as a reddish brown layer over many urban areas. Sources are fuels burned by vehicles, electric utilities, and industrial plants. Nitrogen dioxide is one of the nitrogen oxides, a group of highly reactive gases that contain various amounts of nitrogen and oxygen. Studies show that nitrogen dioxide may increase your risk of heart problems, such as heart failure.9 Nitrogen oxides cause many problems, including:
    • Breathing problems.
    • Acid rain, which is made when nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide react with other substances in the air and form acids. The acids then fall to earth as rain, snow, dry particles, or fog.
    • Toxic chemicals. Nitrogen oxides mix with common organic chemicals and even ozone to create toxic chemicals that can cause biological mutations.
    • Visibility impairment. Nitrogen dioxide and nitrate particles block light transmission and reduce visibility in urban areas.
  • Sulfur dioxide. This gas is formed when fuels containing sulfur are burned. Examples are when coal and oil burn, when gasoline is extracted from oil, or when metals are extracted from ore. Sulfur dioxide is put into the air when fossil fuel is burned, such as by coal-fired power plants. Other sources are industries that create products from metallic ore, coal, and crude oil or those that burn coal or oil, such as petroleum refineries or metal processing facilities. Sulfur dioxide causes:
    • Health problems for people with asthma and heart conditions.
    • Acid rain.
    • Damage to forests and crops.
    • Damage to fish in streams and lakes.
  • Lead. Leaded gasoline used to be the main source of lead in the air. But because leaded fuels have been phased out, the main sources of lead emissions are metals-processing facilities, especially lead smelters. Lead may cause serious health problems, including:
    • Damage to kidneys, liver, brain, nerves, and other organs. Lead may also cause osteoporosis and reproductive problems. Excessive exposure can cause seizures, intellectual disability, behavioral disorders, memory problems, and mood changes. Low levels of lead cause brain and nerve damage in young children and fetuses, which can lead to learning problems and low IQ.
    • High blood pressure and increases in heart disease.
    • Anemia.

For more information, see the topics Carbon Monoxide Poisoning and Lead Poisoning.

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