Environmental Toxins 101: Everything You Need to Know

Relating to environmental toxins, many people conjure photos of commercial smokestacks, however sadly, they aren’t in simply the obvious locations, however they’re in every single place in our day by day lives – within the water we drink, the air we breathe, the meals we eat, the merchandise we use on our physique, in our properties and our gardens.

These toxins with sufficient focus can wreak havoc on our well being with main threats that embody cancer-causing carcinogens, and different substances that upend cardiovascular, endocrine, and respiratory capabilities, in addition to, result in persistent sickness.

As scientists and healthcare employees are understanding increasingly concerning the results of those toxins and never solely how they have an effect on us, however how they could set off different issues inside our our bodies, the necessity for us to determine restrict our publicity is changing into extra necessary.

So what precisely are these toxins, and the way can we restrict our publicity and who helps to drive systems-level change?

First let’s get some info.

Fast Details

  • Environmental toxins aren’t simply human-made, however in addition they naturally happen within the atmosphere like arsenic, lead, mercury, radon, formaldehyde, benzene and cadmium. Different sources of pure toxins are present in mushrooms, animal venom, and microscopic algae in oceans and lakes that make meals sources toxic to people.
  • Not all ranges of toxin publicity are dangerous. The organic results (useful, detached or poisonous) of all chemical compounds are depending on a number of components: the route of publicity, price, period, frequency, complete dose and the kind of hazard.
  • The buildup of poisons that find yourself in our our bodies is known as “Physique Burden.” There are additionally methods to get examined to see what chemical compounds have constructed up in your physique.
  • There are physicians that now follow environmental drugs which look in the direction of environmental components as the foundation reason for sickness.
  • Marginalized communities are disportionately affected by environmental toxins.

Environmental Toxins: Within the Air

Coal smoke and steam vapor pour out of the Bruce Mansfield Energy Plant overlooking a residential neighborhood on September 11, 2008 in Shippingport, Pennsylvania. Robert Nickelsberg / Getty Pictures

Based on the United Nations, 9 out of 10 of us breathe air containing ranges of pollution that exceed World Well being Group limits, and round 7 million individuals die from illnesses and infections associated to air air pollution. Air air pollution can be partially chargeable for local weather change.

In america, the EPA has a full record of 188 air pollution that they declare to be working with state, native, and tribal governments to scale back.

Listed below are among the worst offenders:

Particulate Matter

Particulate Matter (PM10 and PM2.5) (also referred to as particle air pollution) is extraordinarily small particles and droplets in air that may be made up of quite a lot of parts together with nitrates, sulfates, natural chemical compounds, metals, soil or mud particles, and allergens (like pollen or mildew).

Quick-term publicity can result in irritated eyes, nostril and throat, worsening bronchial asthma, and lung circumstances like persistent bronchitis, and cardiovascular points. Lengthy-term publicity can lead to diminished lung perform, cardiovascular and respiratory illnesses, discount in life expectancy.

PM10 and PM 2.5  comes from wooden burning heaters, industrial sources, energy vegetation, mud from development websites, pollen, mildew, brush and wildfires, mud storms, gasoline, oil and diesel gasoline.

In 2017, in america, California was house to fifteen of the 30 worst locations for air air pollution in the entire nation.

Ozone (O3)

Whereas Ozone – which is a gasoline composed of three atoms of oxygen – happens in a great way within the Earth’s higher ambiance, on the floor degree it’s detrimental and a dangerous contaminant.

Based on the EPA, this fundamental ingredient in smog shouldn’t be emitted immediately into the air, however created by chemical reactions between oxides of nitrogen (NOx) and risky natural compounds (VOC). Primarily, it’s the proper storm created when pollution from vehicles, energy vegetation, industrial boilers, refineries, chemical vegetation, and react to daylight.

Just like particulates, it creates lung points, making it tougher to breathe, inflames and damages airways, causes coughing, and aggravates lung illnesses like bronchial asthma and emphysema.

Exacerbated in scorching city environments, it may be transported lengthy distances by wind to extra rural areas.


Dioxins are categorised as “persistent natural pollution (POPs), which suggests they take a very long time to interrupt down within the atmosphere. And very like the atmosphere, in addition they, due to their chemical stability and skill to be absorbed by fats tissue, can keep within the physique for a very long time, with a half-life of as much as 7 to 11 years.

Dioxins come from burning of economic or municipal waste, and yard waste burning, fossil fuels, cigarette smoke, and volcanic exercise and forest fires, in addition to, the manufacturing of herbicides and pesticides. They will accumulate in meals and trigger most cancers, reproductive and developmental points, immune system injury and hormone disruption.

Environmental Toxins: In Water and Meals

Dangerous chemical compounds can leach into meals from plastic containers. istetiana / Second / Getty Pictures

Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs)

A toxin that’s launched into the atmosphere by way of hazardous waste websites, unlawful dumping of commercial waste and client merchandise, and makes its approach into the meals chain (primarily fish), dairy merchandise and animal fats. It will increase danger of most cancers, acts as an endocrine disruptor, and causes infertility and different hormone-regulated issues.


An industrial chemical utilized in plastics manufacturing and added to meals containers, child bottles, plastic water bottles, and hygiene merchandise. Can leach into meals, in addition to, water. Notably when microwaving. Linked to weight problems, diabetes, coronary heart illness, persistent irritation, and disrupts hormones.


Lead contamination in ingesting water often comes from the leaching from plumbing strains.

Publicity to excessive ranges of lead might trigger anemia, weak point, and kidney and mind injury. Very excessive lead publicity could cause demise.


One of many best public well being threats, arsenic originates from contaminated groundwater. Arsenic is a carcinogen that might result in most cancers. Different opposed well being results that could be related to long-term ingestion of inorganic arsenic embody developmental results, diabetes, pulmonary illness, and heart problems.

Perfluoroalkyl and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS). 

Extremely prevalent industrial chemical compounds, and also referred to as a “without end chemical” attributable to its issue in with the ability to take away it from the atmosphere.  PFAS are utilized in nonstick cooking surfaces like Teflon pans and in addition in meals packaging together with paper wraps, liners and pizza bins. PFAS have an effect on human progress and replica, in addition to liver, thyroid, and immune system perform.

Environmental Toxins: Within the Family

OC’s are chemical compounds that may be present in paints. 10’000 Hours / DigitalVision / Getty Pictures

Unstable Natural Compounds (VOC)

VOC’s are chemical compounds that may be present in paints, stains, strippers and finishes, in addition to, cleaners, aerosol sprays, private care merchandise, air fresheners, pesticides, and new furnishings and flooring. Quick time period well being points that end result from publicity are nausea/vomiting, dizziness, complications, throat and eye irritation, and worsening of bronchial asthma signs, with long term points involving most cancers, liver and kidney injury, and central nervous system injury.   

Heavy Metals

Heavy metals akin to aluminum, lead, cadmium, and mercury can cover in space rugs, carpets, pots and pans, magnificence and self-care merchandise, ceramic dinnerware and previous paint residue. Signs of heavy metallic poisoning can embody low physique temperature, belly ache, nausea and vomiting, numbness and tingling, with extra life threatening signs involving irregular heartbeat, anemia, mind injury and cognitive points, kidney and liver injury, issue respiration, and most cancers.

Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers (PBDEs)

Used as fireplace retardants in foam furnishings, carpet padding, electronics, plastics, textiles, and constructing supplies. Time beyond regulation, its poisonous accumulation within the human physique has been related to tumors, delayed mind growth, and thyroid points.


A softening agent utilized in plastics and in quite a lot of magnificence and skincare merchandise, additionally present in vinyl flooring. They’re linked to endocrine disruption, developmental and reproductive toxicity, and most cancers, have been banned from cosmetics within the European Union, however nonetheless stay prevalent in U.S. merchandise.

Here’s a record of private care merchandise that include them and a deep dive on different toxins in magnificence merchandise.

Environmental Toxins and Social Injustice

Individuals collect in entrance of a church earlier than collaborating in a nationwide mile-long march to focus on the push for clear water in Flint February 19, 2016 in Flint, Michigan. Invoice Pugliano / Getty Pictures

Relating to publicity to environmental toxins, it’s broadly reported that marginalized communities, notably individuals of coloration, and people which can be disproportionately low-income see the brunt of air pollution’s unfavorable results.

Based on the Nationwide Institute of Environmental Well being Sciences, 94% of deaths attributable to environmental air pollution now happen in low and center earnings international locations with the World Financial institution stating that one in 10 individuals uncovered to unsafe air air pollution internationally, dwell in excessive poverty.

A key driver of this disproportionate publicity is structural racism and the histories of colonialism that proceed to have an effect on the world at the moment.

As Dr. Sargis and his co-authors observe, “Accounts of the economic division of labor by race in main [United States] cities doc how individuals of coloration had been restricted to low wage, hazardous occupations whereas concurrently being confined to low earnings housing close to these industries.”

Injustice and Poisonous Coal Ash

In 2016, US Civil Rights attorneys launched a probe into federal environmental coverage to seek out out why poisonous coal ash primarily results in poor, marginalized communities. Coal ash, the toxic-waste byproduct of coal burning, usually comprises lead, mercury, chromium, and cadmium, and relying on publicity ranges, could cause most cancers and hurt most organs.

The 250-page report that resulted from this probe discovered that there are greater than 1,000 working coal ash landfills and ponds and lots of tons of of ‘retired’ coal ash disposal websites. In South Carolina alone, there are 23 lively websites, and each one in every of them is positioned in a group that’s low-income and predominantly Black.

It was additionally discovered that the EPA didn’t have many rules for coal ash and in August of 2022, Earthjustice sued the EPA for exempting half a billion tons of poisonous coal ash from well being protections.

Water Injustice in California

Moreover growing drought issues and calamities over the past a number of years, practically 400,000 Californians lack protected ingesting water.

Based on a research performed by researchers at UC Berkeley and UCLA, the contamination – which entails arsenic, nitrate, and different chemical compounds – disportionately impacts Latino communities and different communities of coloration.

Extreme groundwater pumping to feed the agriculture within the San Joaquin Valley, has induced will increase in arsenic within the aquifer, which has affected a number of space low-income residents who’re paying for the contaminated water.

Joaquin Esquivel, chair of the State Water Useful resource Management Board, instructed the LA Occasions, that the shortage of protected and reasonably priced ingesting water is the results of generations of racist insurance policies, notably redlining insurance policies, which entails denying homeownership and monetary companies to residents based mostly on race.

Water Injustice in Flint, Michigan

Flint Michigan’s water disaster made nationwide headlines after environmental injustice and systemic racism led to the neglect of a number of residents within the metropolis whose inhabitants is majority Black, 45% beneath the poverty line after the town switched from the ingesting water provide from Detroit’s system to the Flint River to save cash.

The river for years had served as an unofficial waste disposal website, and was additionally contaminated by uncooked sewage from a waste therapy plant, agriculture and concrete runoff and poisonous leaching from landfills.

Water samples collected confirmed a harmful spike in lead ranges which had been sickening residents, who regardless of complaints about foul-smelling and tasting, discolored water had been instructed the water was protected. Finally residents fought again and had been awarded a settlement of $641 million, whereas authorities officers had been charged with 43 felony counts and 7 misdemeanors for his or her function within the disaster.

Environmental Toxins and the U.S. Navy

Aerial view of the Pentagon constructing. Invoice Clark / CQ-Roll Name, Inc / Getty Pictures

In late November of 2021, navy households and civilians on O’ahu’s Joint Base Pearl Harbor Hickam complained of smelling jet-fuel within the faucet water, which turned out to be the results of 19,000 of jet gasoline leaking into one of many island’s fundamental ingesting water aquifers from the US Navy’s Crimson Hill Underground Gas Storage Facility.

Very similar to Flint, residents had been gaslit that their water was protected, regardless of tons of changing into unwell from the degraded storage facility that had reportedly been leaking for years since its development throughout World Battle II.

The incident has not solely drawn consideration to the navy and its intensive historical past of environmental devastation of Hawai’i – a part of which concerned a long time of dumping lethal chemical compounds within the ocean – however the affect of US navy around the globe.

Most learn about the usage of Agent Orange, the herbicide the navy used as components of its herbicidal warfare program known as Operation Ranchhand throughout the Vietnam Battle. Those that had been uncovered to its excessive dioxin ranges have suffered dire long-term results. Greater than 50 years later, its poisonous byproducts are nonetheless discovered within the soil and affecting meals sources.

Extra fashionable in latest occasions, burn pits, which had been banned in 2010, used on numerous navy bases around the globe, had been generally used to dispose waste collected on base, which included plastics, rubber, chemical mixtures and medical waste. Some burn pits lined as a lot as 10 acres of land, which has additionally had dire impacts on these uncovered and in addition the encircling ecosystems.

The navy was discovered to even be contaminating extra water throughout the US from using PFAS by way of navy firefighter’s utilization of aqueous film-forming foam, or AFFF, which comprises extraordinarily excessive ranges of PFAS, and was mandated in 2020 by way of the Nationwide Protection Authorization Act to be phased out.

Congress lately mandated the navy test for PFAS air pollution at 700 amenities whereas allocating $571m for cleanup.


NYC Mayor Invoice De Blasio, Metropolis Officers and tons of of scholars from New York Metropolis faculties gathered at New York Metropolis Corridor steps in 2018, to induce Metropolis Council Members to go Int 135, a invoice to ban expanded polystyrene foam and to oppose the industry-backed laws to recycle EPS. Erik McGregor / LightRocket / Getty Pictures

In April of this 12 months, the European Union proposed sweeping adjustments by way of a plan known as Restrictions Roadmap, that can use current legal guidelines to ban 1000’s of dangerous chemical compounds together with all carcinogenic flame retardants, bisphenols in plastics, PVC, prohibit PFAS in addition to 2,000 dangerous chemical compounds present in child diapers, pacifiers and childcare merchandise.

Starting in two years, the banning course of will lead all substances to be passed by 2030, based on the European Environmental Bureau. If totally carried out, it will likely be the biggest regulatory elimination wherever on this planet.

The EU has already made progress limiting chemical compounds in cosmetics and toys, banning greater than 3,000 chemical compounds between 2009 and 2022.

Compared, america authorities continues at a glacial tempo.

In 1976, Congress enacted the Poisonous Substances Management Act, which supplied EPA with authority to require reporting, record-keeping and testing necessities, and restrictions referring to chemical substances and/or mixtures, however sure substances had been excluded from it together with meals, medication, cosmetics and pesticides and targeted extra on the manufacturing, utilization, and disposal of particular chemical compounds together with polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), asbestos, radon and lead-based paint.

Although up to date throughout the Obama administration, it nonetheless fell woefully quick in dealing with most environmental toxins and in January 2022, the EPA added its first new chemical to air air pollution record in 30 years.

There was latest nationwide laws on PFAS-laden gadgets with the EPA making an attempt to carry producers accountable, in addition to, the banning the utilization of sure pesticides. In 2021, there was additionally the Biden-Harris Lead Pipe and Paint Motion Plan, to interchange all of the lead water pipes and repair strains within the nation within the subsequent decade, nonetheless, most laws has been piecemeal regulation leaving it largely as much as particular person states to roll out more practical plans.

In 2021, Maine grew to become the primary state to ban all utilization of PFAS chemical compounds by 2030. Different states which have enacted state bans on PFAS in meals packaging are additionally California, Colorado, Connecticut, Maryland, Minnesota, New York, Vermont and Washington, with Colorado, Maryland, Maine and Vermont banning them in carpets, rugs.

California can be making an attempt to section out gas-powered vehicles by 2035 to assist scale back poisonous emissions.

Nonetheless there appears to be an extended technique to go, and people on the EPA, notably their new administrator Michal Freedhoff, has needed to cope with years of neglect, a small funds that has declined by practically 50% since 1980, failed rules, and residual points from the Trump administration. Whereas the Biden administration promised to fund 87 new hires to tackle roles, based on ProPublica, steady stopgap funding measures impeded progress.

Grassroots Degree Change

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The place authorities coverage is missing, grassroots organizations have all the time been shifting to create systems-level change domestically and nationally.

Again within the 80s, environmental activist Lois Gibbs, organized her group to push native, state, and federal governments to evacuate and clear up the chemical waste buried beneath her neighborhood. Finally her efforts led to the EPA creating the Superfund Program, which works to determine and clear the nation’s most poisonous waste websites.

Listed below are some the teams at present shifting the dial:

The Environmental Working Group

The Environmental Working Group is a nonprofit American activist group that focuses on analysis and advocacy within the areas of agricultural subsidies, poisonous chemical compounds, ingesting water pollution, and company accountability, who constructed client guides to assist be taught concerning the hidden well being risks in your meals, water and on a regular basis merchandise to make higher choices.

Poisonous-Free Future

Poisonous-Free Future works to create a more healthy tomorrow by fostering the usage of safer merchandise, chemical compounds, and practices by way of superior analysis, advocacy, grassroots organizing, and client engagement. Additionally has an exhaustive record that includes a coalition of organizations, companies, and blogs that will help you perceive dwell extra toxic-free.


Nonprofit legislation group that has a Poisonous Publicity & Well being Program that makes use of the facility of the legislation to make sure that all individuals have protected workplaces, neighborhoods, and faculties; have entry to protected ingesting water and meals; and dwell in properties which can be freed from hazardous chemical compounds. We work to make sure that regulators acknowledge and redress the inequitable burdens imposed on Black, Indigenous, and folks of coloration (BIPOC) — by the manufacturing, use, and disposal of poisonous chemical compounds.

NDN Collective

An Indigenous-led group devoted to constructing Indigenous energy and dealing in the direction of local weather justice and combating towards the contamination and exploitation of the extractive industries which can be on the root of local weather change.

We Act

WE ACT’s mission is to construct wholesome communities by guaranteeing that folks of coloration and/or low earnings residents take part meaningfully within the creation of sound and truthful environmental well being and safety insurance policies and practices.

Sierra Membership

Environmental group with chapters in the entire 50 states that works for clear air, protected water, and land safety.

What You Can Do to Restrict Your Personal Publicity

  • Filter your water to keep away from excessive concentrations of heavy metals akin to arsenic, mercury, lead, aluminum and cadmium. Additionally, have your faucet water examined and if contamination is discovered, put a filter on each faucet, together with within the bathe.
  • Test together with your native well being division and get your private home examined for lead or go to your native ironmongery shop to get a take a look at equipment for radon to keep away from poisoning.
  • Do away with pesticides and check out these pure alternate options.
  • Cease utilizing herbicides and check out these natural weedkillers.
  • Keep away from dry-cleaning garments. Many cleaners use the chemical perchloroethylene (PERC), which may pollute the air at house.
  • Search for “BPA free” on labels when utilizing plastic bottles and canned meals. Use glass or ceramic containers to retailer and microwave meals.
  • Ditch teflon cookware, and use stainless-steel or forged iron pans as a substitute.
  • Be discriminant about your private care merchandise. Right here is the Environmental Working Group’s search instrument to see what’s in your merchandise that you simply buy or are considering of buying.
  • When portray your own home, search for Low-VOC and Zero-VOC paints and finishes.
  • Purchase contemporary, natural, or develop your individual produce.
  • Have individuals take their sneakers off once they come into your private home to scale back pesticides and different chemical compounds they could decide up exterior. Residual poisonous chemical compounds can final in carpets for years.
  • When shopping for plastic merchandise for the house, ask in the event that they include PVC or phthalates. Additionally, test the label of child merchandise to make sure they’re phthalate-free.
  • Keep away from buying flame retardant clothes for each youth and adults.
  • Keep away from foam and polyester merchandise when searching for new furnishings and bedding. Select wool or cotton as a substitute.
  • Use pure cleansing provides. You may be taught to make your individual right here or store non-toxic merchandise right here.


Whereas the pervasiveness and ubiquitousness of environmental toxins may be daunting, and governmental insurance policies and overhauls of {industry} seem essential to make massive sweeping adjustments, there are methods to scale back publicity, and eradicate some toxicity, whereas grassroots actions transfer to make change on native, nationwide, and worldwide ranges.

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