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Environmental Illness - Toxic Chemicals in Our Environment


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

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

WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise

Last Updated: August 07, 2012
This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.
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