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Chemical Contaminants Linked to 180 Different Diseases

In the past five decades, over 80,000 chemicals have been developed and put to use. They have become such an integral part of our lives that most of us are exposed to chemicals daily in the air we breathe, the homes we live in and the food we eat.

Contrary to popular belief, most of these chemicals have never been safety tested for use with humans, animals or the environment, and many environmental chemicals cannot be seen, smelled or tasted -- but that doesn't mean they are inert.

enviromental chemicals

Over 80,000 chemicals have been developed over the last 50 years, many of which we're exposed to daily in our air, water and food.

Scientists are now beginning to discover that exposure to chemicals -- indoors, outside, at work and even in the womb -- is a major contributor to chronic diseases plaguing the nation. The Collaborative on Health and the Environment (CHE) has released a toxicant and disease database that summarizes links between chemical contaminants and 180 diseases or conditions in humans.

Further, the World Health Organization (WHO) has released a report stating that one-quarter of the world's disease burden -- and one-third of the disease burden among children -- is due to environmental factors that could be modified.

Chemicals Impact Human Health

While it's known and accepted that some chemicals, such as lead, mercury and asbestos, cause health damage, the effects of most chemicals are just beginning to surface. Part of what makes pegging a specific chemical with a health problem so difficult is that the effects, such as cancer, may not show up until months, years or even decades later -- making it nearly impossible to draw a definitive link.

Further, people's exposures to chemicals vary throughout their lives depending on environment, and people may be exposed to multiple chemicals at a time. The synergistic effects of multiple chemical exposures may increase the health risks, but it's not known to what extent.

For instance, according to CHE, a person who smokes cigarettes and is exposed to asbestos increases their risk of lung cancer by 25-fold, a risk that's significantly higher than the risks of smoking and asbestos, if added together individually, ignoring the combined effects.

Of course, testing chemical exposures on humans would be unethical, so studies that have been done often rely on estimates and judgments of exposure, which leaves room for much error. And, adding to the complexity, some people appear to be more susceptible to chemicals than others, and their effects may also be influenced by a person's age at time of exposure (in utero, early in life, middle-aged, etc.), how they're exposed (inhalation, through the skin, etc.), and the amount and duration of exposure.

enviromental chemicals

Learn more about environmental chemicals' effects on your health with The Collaborative on Health and the Environment's Toxicant and Disease Database.

To find out about a number of diseases linked to chemicals, you can search CHE's Toxicant and Disease Database. Here is a small sampling from the list:

  • Asthma

  • Parkinson's disease

  • Rheumatoid arthritis

  • Abnormal sperm count


  • Diabetes

  • Gulf War Syndrome

  • Alzheimer's disease

Chemicals and Cancer

The evidence is mounting that environmental contaminants play a major role in the risk of developing cancer. A new study by researchers at the University of Liverpool has now found that exposure to even small amounts of environmental contaminants in air, food and water may increase the risk of cancer, especially in infants and young adults.

Said Professor Vyvyan Howard from the University's Department of Human Anatomy and Cell Biology:

"Environmental contaminants, in particular synthetic pesticides and organochlorines with hormone-disrupting properties, could be a major factor in causing hormone-dependent malignancies such as breast, testicular and prostate cancers. Preventative measures for these types of cancer have focused on educating the public about the danger of tobacco smoke, improving diet and promoting physical activity. We should now, however, be focusing on trying to reduce exposure to problematic chemicals.

The World Health Organization estimates that between one and five percent of malignant disease in developed countries is attributed to environmental factors; but our research suggests this figure may have been underestimated."

Chemicals All Around Us

Some of the more pervasive, and most potentially toxic, chemicals out there are as follows:

  • Bisphenol-A: A chemical used in plastic bottles, toys, pacifiers, can liners and more that mimics the female hormone estrogen and may affect fertility and promote cancer.

  • Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs): Gases emitted from paint, carpeting, air fresheners and other building supplies that have been linked to cancer and damage to the liver, kidney and central nervous system.

  • Phthalates: Chemicals found in soft plastics (plastic wrap, food storage containers, toys) and many personal care products that may cause reproductive and developmental harm, organ damage, immune suppression, endocrine disruption and cancer.

  • Organophosphates: Widely used pesticides linked to cancer, decreasing male fertility and Parkinson's disease.

  • Perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs): Used in non-stick pans and wrinkle-free clothing, PFCs have been linked to cancer.

  • Brominated Flame Retardants: Polybrominated diphenyl ether, or PBDEs, are flame retardants used in foams and other plastics. Animal studies have shown that PBDEs can be neurotoxic and exposures in utero may cause future sexual, learning, behavior and thyroid problems in the offspring.

  • PCBs: Polychlorinated biphenyls are industrial chemicals that have been banned in the United States for decades, but still exist in the environment, including in the food chain in items like farm-raised fish. PCBs have been lined to cancer and impaired fetal brain development.

How to Best Reduce Your Chemical Exposures

Aloe Castile Liquid Soaps

Using natural personal care products like Aloe Castile Liquid Soaps can help reduce your cumulative exposure to chemicals.

There are many strategies available to help you keep your chemical exposure to a minimum, both in the immediate future and the long term:

  • Buy organic produce, meats, eggs and dairy products as much as possible to reduce pesticide exposure.

  • Eliminate chemical cleaners from your home. Opt for natural varieties instead.

  • Use safe, natural brands of cosmetics and other toiletries. Most health food stores carry chemical-free varieties of everything from shave cream to moisturizing lotion. Two favorites here at are the all-natural Aloe Castile Liquid Soaps -- which can be used for hands, bodywash, shaving, oily hair shampoo and general-purpose cleaning -- and, if you prefer bar soap, Vermont Soap's Organic Country Bars.

  • Use proper precautions, including masks, gloves, protective clothing and adequate ventilation, when exposure to chemicals cannot be avoided.

  • Avoid using synthetic air fresheners, laundry detergents and fabric softeners.

  • Choose glass storage containers for your food and drinks when possible, and avoid heating your food in plastic containers or covered in plastic wrap.

  • Be especially diligent in avoiding chemicals, such as paint, new carpeting (which outgases chemicals), pesticides, hair color, etc., while pregnant or breastfeeding.

  • Avoid using synthetic pesticides in your home or yard.

  • Dispose of chemicals properly to reduce environmental contamination.

Recommended Reading

The 6+ Synthetic Fabrics You Most Want to Avoid, and Why

PEG Compounds in Cosmetics: A Little-Known Danger to You


The Collaborative on Health and the Environment Toxicant and Disease Database

Growing Up Toxic: Chemical Exposures and Increases in Developmental Disease

WHO: Preventing Disease Through Healthy Environments

Medical News Today March 22, 2006

CDC: Third National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals 2005

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