Exposures to chemical contaminants at work, home, in the environment, and even in utero are now recognized as important and preventable causes of disease.
Scientific research shows a link between exposure to environmental contaminants and the following:
- Disruption of the hormone system (the underlying cause of numerous other adverse health outcomes)
- Reproductive health effects (i.e. infertility, miscarriage)
- Developmental health effects (i.e. autism, cerebral palsy)
- Allergies/Immunotoxicity (i.e. asthma)
- Other diseases (i.e. diabetes, obesity)
Health effects of exposures to contaminants may be influenced by several factors, including:
- Dosage (level of exposure)
- Duration of exposure (acute vs. chronic)
- Timing of exposure (fetal, childhood, etc.)
- Sensitivity of individual to contaminant
- Latency period (time between exposure and onset of disease)
- Physiological factors
- Genetic factors
- Socioeconomic factors
Although researchers are learning more each day about the health effects associated with exposure to toxic chemicals, it is often difficult to make a direct link between exposure and disease.
- The sheer number of chemicals we are exposed to each day makes it especially challenging for scientists to isolate the effects of one from others.
- Health effects may not show up immediately following exposure to toxic chemicals, so it can be difficult to identify when exposure occurred and what chemicals were involved.
- Very little is known about how various chemicals react together in the body.
Precautionary Principle: It’s better to be safe than sorry
Cautionary sayings like “better safe than sorry,” “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” and “look before you leap,” capture the essence of the precautionary principle as does the “first, do no harm” tenet of medicine. The 1998 Wingspread Statement of the Precautionary Principle was adopted by organizations and governments around the world and has been used to help guide environmental and health policy:
When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.
The precautionary principle guides us to protect health by preventing exposures from occurring in the first place. This means we should not wait until chemicals of concern are scientifically proven to cause adverse health effects, as this may take years or even decades during which time people may be unknowingly exposed to hazardous substances. It is better policy to protect the public from unnecessary exposures to suspected health hazards by taking preventive, precautionary actions. Further, the burden of proof should be on the chemical manufacturers to demonstrate safety before a chemical or product is allowed on the market.
Collaborative on Health and the Environment – Alaska
We established the Alaska Collaborative on Health and the Environment (CHE-Alaska) to advance knowledge and effective action to address growing concerns about the links between the health of people and environmental factors. We hold regular teleconference seminars and other free events. Please visit our CHE-Alaska page to learn more, listen to recordings of past seminars, or sign up for our next teleconference.
Reduce Your Exposure to Contaminants
While it should not be primarily up to individuals to protect ourselves from exposure to toxic chemicals, there are things you can do to reduce your exposure.
You can also take action in your community to promote least toxic practices in schools, public health care facilities, and other public spaces.
Vulnerable Populations in the Arctic
As a result of severe environmental injustices in rural Alaska, communities may experience disproportionate exposure to contaminants and associated adverse health effects. High rates of cancer and other diseases in some Alaska Native villages may be linked to exposure to environmental contaminants from a number of sources, including:
- Military waste at formerly used defense sites
- Persistent organic pollutants from other parts of the world that end up in the Arctic in a process known as global transport
- Contaminated water and traditional food sources close to, downstream or downwind from mine sites, though it may be uncertain how far contaminants may spread around the sites
- Toxics leached from open dumpsites
- Smoke from the burning of certain plastics in burn barrels and burn boxes
At the request of communities, Alaska Community Action on Toxics engages in community-based participatory research to understand better the link between environmental exposures and disease.
We have also developed an Environmental Health Care Toolkit for community health aides in rural Alaska. The toolkit provides facts about contaminants that may be present in the environment as well as how we are exposed, known or suspected symptoms and potential health effects of exposure, and ways to reduce our exposure. The Toolkit includes a Protecting Our Health in Alaska poster, which illustrates measures to reduce exposure to contaminants and is designed for homes, clinics, schools, and other community buildings. Please contact us for a copy of the poster.
Chemicals of Concern:
Below are selected chemicals of concern and some of the health effects that have been observed in animals and/or humans. In many cases, some of these health effects occur from low dose exposures and at levels that we are exposed to through everyday products, air, water, and food.
Bisphenol-A is used to make polycarbonate plastic products, including some kinds of water bottles, baby bottles, and food storage and heating containers. Research has linked bisphenol-A exposure to the following health effects: endocrine disruption, recurrent miscarriage, altered mammary gland development, prostate cancer, altered brain development and behavior, insulin resistance and cardiovascular diseases. Bisphenol-A fact sheet
Pesticides include insecticides, herbicides, rodenticides, fungicides, and repellants. Pesticides are used in commercial, residential and public landscaping, homes and offices, on agricultural crops, and in consumer and personal care products. Exposure to pesticides has been linked to adverse health effects, including: abnormal brain development and behavior, abnormal reflexes, delayed development, increase in attention deficits and hyperactivity, cancers, endocrine disruption, delayed sexual maturation in boys, seizures, and malfunction of nervous system. Pesticides fact sheet
Phthalates are used in PVC plastics as well as other flexible plastics and in non-plastic consumer items such as many cosmetics and personal care products. Phthalates have been linked to: reproductive and developmental effects in humans; asthma and rhinitis in children; and effects on the pituitary, thyroid, thymus, ovaries, testes, lung, kidneys, liver, and blood in laboratory animals. Phthalates fact sheet
Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) are a class of flame retardant chemicals added to many consumer products, including some plastic electronics such as televisions and computer casings and upholstery covers of items such as furniture, mattresses, and car seats. PBDEs have been linked to many adverse health effects including: developmental effects, reproductive effects, cancer, and thyroid problems. PBDEs fact sheet
Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), once used as insulators in the electrical industry, are now banned in many countries, including the U.S. Considered persistent organic pollutants, PCBs from around the world are building up and persisting in the Arctic. Prenatal exposure to PCBs has been linked to health effects, including: lower developmental test scores, short-term memory defects, and lower IQ levels in children. Long-term and chronic PCBs exposures are also associated with adverse health effects including: cancer, immune suppression, neurobehavioral problems, endocrine disruption of sex steroid and thyroid function, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes. PCBs fact sheet
Triclosan is an antibacterial chemical used in a wide range of consumer products, including soaps, deodorants, cosmetics, cleansing lotions, toothpaste, plastics, and fabrics. Exposure to triclosan has been linked to skin irritation and eczematous rash. Long-term chronic exposures to triclosan may be linked to: thyroid disruption, increased allergies and asthma. Triclosan fact sheet