Environmental Poisoning

The human body is remarkable for its ability to handle the onslaughts of what can at times be a hostile environment. It is capable of neutralizing or expelling many potentially harmful agents, whether they are organic microbes or industrial chemicals or minerals. However, if your body absorbs low levels of some chemicals or minerals over a period of months or even years, you may develop chronic environmental poisoning. (Another form of environmental poisoning is acute environmental poisoning, which results from exposure to or ingestion of dangerous amounts of a toxic substance; for information on how to deal with acute poisoning, see Emergencies/First Aid: Poisoning.) Symptoms of chronic environmental poisoning are often vague and can vary in severity; the condition is thus sometimes mistaken for another ailment or re-mains undetected altogether.

Some people cannot tolerate even minimal exposure to certain chemicals because a genetic malfunction interferes with the production of enzymes that would normally metabolize the toxins and neutralize their damaging effects. Other people are just more sensitive to toxins in the environment: This increased sensitivity can be due to age (both the very young and the elderly being more susceptible to environmental poisoning) and health factors (including smoking, drinking, diet, exercise, and existing chronic disease).

Many conditions fall into the category of environmental poisoning. In some people, for example, environmental poisoning may take the form of an allergy, a physical reaction to a substance that most people are able to tolerate. People who work in poorly ventilated buildings with unhealthy levels of airborne toxins may develop what is known popularly as sick building syndrome, while agricultural workers who use pesticides day after day are at risk for pesticide poisoning. Although not universally accepted in the medical community as a physical illness, multiple chemical sensitivity-in which the body reacts adversely to a wide range of substances, from plastics to perfumes, that do not normally trouble most people-is yet another condition attributed to chronic exposure to potential environmental toxins.

Studies Suggest that, once locked in the body, toxic substances are a factor in the development of many other diseases and conditions that may not at first glance seem directly related to environmental poisoning. Among these are birth defects, endometriosis, infertility, other reproductive and developmental problems, coronary heart disease, respiratory illness, and many types of cancer, especially of the lung, skin, and breast.

Because we encounter low levels of so many environmental toxins in daily life, identifying the toxin or toxins that may be responsible for environmental poisoning can be difficult. Some of the most common and hazardous toxins are lead, asbestos, gasoline and other petroleum distillates, radon, carbon monoxide, organophosphates, formaldehyde, and drinking-water contaminants.

Benzene is one hazardous substance that is found in many forms. It is used in the production of deodorant, oven cleaner, soap, and perfume, and it is a component of paints, pesticides, asphalt, and gasoline and jet fuel. It can contaminate ground-water and surface-water supplies and pollute the air via auto exhaust, manufacturing processes, and cigarette smoke. Yet despite its widespread presence in the environment and its classification as a cancer-causing agent (carcinogen) in the United States, benzene is generally considered a hazard only for the two million or so industrial workers who are exposed to elevated benzene levels at their jobs.

Another common industrial chemical is formaldehyde, which is found in a wide variety of products, including plastics, paper, cosmetics, and carpets. Construction materials, such as particle board, building insulation, and plywood, can emit formaldehyde gas for several years after their manufacture and installation. Several studies since the 1980s have indicated that long-term exposure to formaldehyde is a health risk. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) classifies the chemical as a probable carcinogen, although only industrial workers are considered at risk. Some researchers claim that much lower levels of exposure can irritate the eyes and respiratory tract, but many people routinely exposed to formaldehyde at such levels do not develop even these milder symptoms of toxicity.

Two substances that have received public notice as known carcinogens are asbestos and radon. Asbestos is a fine, fiberlike mineral that until recently was used in construction. Radon and its breakdown products, which are present in the Earth's crust, are released naturally into the air via radioactive decay. Both radon and asbestos are indoor air pollutants that have been significantly linked to the development of lung cancer. Not all buildings contain asbestos, however; and only certain areas of the United States emit radon at levels considered health-threatening.

Carbon monoxide is a common, yet poisonous, gas that is released into the air whenever fuel, wood, or tobacco products are burned. Heavy rush-hour traffic can generate high levels of carbon monoxide, and dangerous, sometimes lethal levels can build up in poorly ventilated garages or houses where faulty heating devices emit exhaust fumes that stay trapped indoors. When carbon monoxide enters the bloodstream, it disrupts the body's usual mechanisms for transporting and absorbing oxygen. Mild cases of carbon monoxide poisoning may cause headaches, nausea, or dizziness; severe cases can lead to respiratory failure and death.

The mineral lead is another contaminant of the air, water, soil, and food. Poisonous at even low levels, lead is known to have a damaging effect on the reproductive system, the kidneys, the nervous system, and the production of blood cells. Since the use of lead-free gasoline has become widespread, lead levels in the air have been significantly reduced. The EPA sets permissible limits for lead in drinking water. However, young children are still at risk of developing lead poisoning from ingesting particles of lead-based paint, which was used in most homes and buildings until it was banned in 1978.

Organophosphates are a potential toxic hazard for farm workers, gardeners, veterinarians, and other people who work with pesticides or in secticides. These chemicals, which are usually absorbed by the skin, retain their potency for several days after they have been applied to field crops. Their toxic effects can range from extreme fatigue, skin irritations, and nausea to depression, breathing problems, seizures, or coma. Agricultural workers who are routinely exposed to high levels of pesticides are considered at greatest risk of developing serious side effects, but some researchers believe that homeowners who use these products regularly in their houses or gardens may also be at risk.

Taking preventive actions, from checking your home for radon emissions to wearing protective gear when exposed on the job to hazardous chemicals, is the key to combating any level of environmental poisoning. The more you know about the particular risks involved, the better you can avoid toxic substances before they become a problem.


Toxic chemicals can get into the body through inhalation (for instance, carbon monoxide), penetration of the skin (pesticides), or ingestion (lead). Some substances can affect the human fetus by crossing the placenta; some also contaminate breast milk and thus may be ingested by a nursing infant.

Once inside the body, toxins can act in a number of ways. Despite how or where a toxin enters the body, it may have its greatest effect on certain target organs. The liver and kidneys, which filter impurities from the body, are often the most susceptible to toxins, especially inhaled industrial solvents. Some chemicals and minerals are stored in the body's fat or bones and may be released later. Lead, for example, is stored in the bones and may be released when a woman becomes pregnant and her body draws on its stores of bone calcium. Some hazardous agents may be effectively broken down by metabolic processes once they are in the body, but others may become even more harmful as a result.

Diagnostic and Test Procedures

A doctor will probably give you a complete physical examination and take a detailed medical history. You may be asked to keep a diary of your diet and other behavior. Your blood, urine, hair, and fatty tissue may be analyzed for chemical content, and you may also have a liver function test to see how it responds to certain chemicals. Some doctors are currently studying the usefulness of "environmental control units," special chemically sterile chambers in which patients suspected of having multiple chemical sensitivity are exposed to various substances until those specifically linked to their illness are identified.


Conventional Medicine

The treatment you receive will depend on which toxic substances are identified as causing your ill-ness. For instance, lead poisoning is often treated with chelation therapy, which involves injections of chemicals that bind with lead in the blood; the lead is later eliminated in urine. However, most treatments for environmental poisoning focus on monitoring symptoms and identifying and eliminating offending substances from the patient's immediate environment.

Alternative Choices

Regular exercise, a balanced diet, and stress-reduction techniques, such as yoga and meditation, can help strengthen your immune system, enabling your body to be more resilient to environmental toxins.

Herbal Therapies

Milk thistle (Silyburn marianum), burdock (Arctium lappa), and dandelion (Tarauacum officinale) may help detoxify the liver. For general immune support try Siberian ginseng Eleutherococcus senticosus), astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus), and cleavers (Galium spp.). For advice on how best to treat your specific condition, consult an herbal practitioner.


Be aware of your environment. Ask questions. Pay close attention to what you are eating and breathing. A recent study-the largest ever on the health effects of airborne particles from smokestacks and traffic-found that people in the most polluted U.S. cities are about 15 percent more likely to die prematurely than those living in cities with the cleanest air.

Here are some specific preventive steps that you can take:

u Talk to your state environmental office to see if your house is located in an area known for radon contamination; if so, have it tested. u If you are removing paint from your house, have it tested for lead content. Painting over the old paint may be preferable to removing it, because sanding can release lead particles into the air. Some communities have regulations for removing lead paint; check with your local environmental or health department before beginning the job. u When using hazardous products, always follow the instructions, and wear protective clothing and eye gear. u Keep your children and pets off lawns that have recently been treated with pesticides. (Some communities require that homeowners post a notice when chemicals have been applied.) Stay indoors with the windows closed if trees in your neighborhood are being sprayed with chemicals. u Use nontoxic cleaning products and insecticides around your house. Many of these products are now available in stores or through catalogs.

  • In buildings, be alert to obviousor over-powering-chemical odors that may be emitted by paints, pesticides, new carpets, office machines, or other offenders. Make sure the ventilation in your office meets or exceeds standards.
  • Some studies indicate that certain house-plants can help remove impurities from the air. Consult your local horticultural society or garden center.
  • To help avoid pesticides, thoroughly wash fruits and vegetables, peel produce, and consider buying organic.
  • Avoid walking or running near streets with heavy automobile traffic; your increased respiration will increase the amount of carbon monoxide and other toxins that you inhale.
  • Install a carbon monoxide detector in your home. Without a detector, you may remain unaware of a buildup of the gas, which is colorless, tasteless, and odorless and may not cause any physical irritation.
  • A balanced diet will help your body maintain its ability to fight toxins. Vitamin deficiencies have been linked to increasing the toxic effects of several substances. Your susceptibility to lead poisoning, for example, increases if your body is deficient in calcium, phosphorus, copper, magnesium, iron, vitamin C, or vitamin E. However, because some vitamins and minerals can be toxic in large doses, never exceed the amounts recommended on the label for your daily requirements, without first consulting a nutritionist.
  • Weight-loss diets, which make your body metabolize existing fat for energy, will also result in the release of any chemicals that have been stored in those fat cells. If you want to lose weight, do so slowly so that your system does not become flooded with a sudden re-lease of these substances. (Source : Alternative Medicine; Sept., 2005)

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