Taking your breath away – how environmental toxins can affect your health

We don’t give much thought to our hard-working lungs. We breathe thousands of times each day with little thought for what our lungs might be exposed to.

Most of us are aware of the negative impacts of smoking on health, but tobacco isn’t the only substance that can harm our lungs. We are exposed to a range of strong substances every day that can damage the lungs – in our home, workplace and even in our makeup bag. Here are the top ten substances which can impact lung health and how you can reduce your exposure.

1. Asbestos

    AsbestosA fibrous material that was commonly used in commercial and industrial buildings as insulation, or fireproofing, asbestos has been linked to mesothelioma cancer, an aggressive form of cancer that attacks the lining of the lungs, heart, and abdomen. Symptoms of mesothelioma include nausea, chest pain, fatigue, coughing, fever, and weight loss, though different forms of the disease present different symptoms. com reports that in the US alone, more than 37,000 people lost their lives because of Mesothelioma from 1999 to 2013[1]. Over 80% of mesothelioma cases are the result of asbestos exposure[2].

    If you think your home may contain asbestos, it is important to have it removed by an abatement specialist! Asbestos is most dangerous when it has been disrupted and the fibres become airborne, so never attempt to remove it yourself.

      2. Carbon monoxide 

      It is a gas that travels from the lungs to the bloodstream, where it attaches to haemoglobin molecules transporting oxygen throughout the blood. Carbon monoxide is especially dangerous as it has no taste or smell, so can easily go undetected. This means that dangerous concentrations of the gas can build up indoors and humans are unable to detect the problem until they become ill. Exposure to carbon monoxide can cause shortness of breath, nausea, and chest pain, and if untreated, can lead to loss of consciousness, and potentially death.

      Common sources of carbon monoxide include[3]:

        • Clothes dryers,
        • Water heaters
        • Furnaces or boilers
        • Fireplaces (gas and wood burning)
        • Gas stoves and ovens
        • Motor vehicles
        • Grills, camp stoves, generators, power tools, lawn equipment
        • Wood stoves
        • Tobacco smoke
        • Boats

        The best way to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning is to install a carbon monoxide detector in your home.

        3. Benzene

        A widely used industrial chemical, benzene is found in plastics, resins, synthetic fibres, rubber lubricants, dyes, detergents, drugs and pesticides. It is also a major component of gasoline. In homes, benzene may be found in glues, adhesives, cleaning products, paint strippers and tobacco smoke.[4]

        Short term exposure to high levels of benzene can cause drowsiness, headaches and dizziness. Prolonged exposure can cause anaemia, weaken the immune and reproductive systems and increase the risk of developing leukaemia.

        The most common way people are exposed to benzene is when they fill their car with gas. Avoid breathing the vapours when you pump gas, do not dispense or handle gasoline in your home or garage, and take containers and gasoline operated machinery outside, away from the house, when filling to allow for ventilation.

          4. Formaldehyde

          A known carcinogen, formaldehyde is also a universal sensitizer, which is a chemical that can make a person more sensitive to all other chemicals if there is a large enough exposure. It can cause a range of acute symptoms such as headaches, itchy or burning eyes and is particularly irritating to asthmatics.

          Though it sounds like it belongs only in a factory, formaldehyde is also commonly found in the home – from air fresheners and plug-in fragrances to paper towels! Beware of manufactured wood furniture (including cribs and other baby furniture), conventional nail polish and nail polish remover, vehicle exhaust fumes and commercially pressed linen, sheets and pillow cases. If you park your car in a garage, ensure you always open the door before you turn on the ignition. And of course, avoid smoking!

            5. Ammonia

            Most of us are familiar with Ammonia’s sharp, irritating smell, but are you aware of the health risks? Ammonia fumes pose an immediate danger to lungs and skin. These risks increase dramatically when ammonia is mixed with chlorine bleach or cleaners containing it. This chemical combination produces highly poisonous chloramine gas, which can cause severe lung damage[5].

            Ammonia can irritate or burn skin and mucous membranes, and is highly toxic if swallowed. Asthmatics are particularly vulnerable to ammonia fumes.

            Ammonia fumes also react with nitrates in the environment to form unhealthy ammonium nitrate particles, which then linger in household dust, carpets, curtains and upholstery.

            The most common exposure to ammonia is via household cleaners, including glass and window cleaners, metal and oven cleaners. Read labels carefully and only select cleaning products that voluntarily disclose their ingredients. When using any cleaning products, open all windows to ensure adequate ventilation.

              6. Mould and Mildew 

              Moulds are part of the natural environment, and can be found everywhere, indoors and outdoors. Mould is not usually a problem, unless it begins growing indoors. Moulds can have a big impact on indoor air quality.[6]

              Exposure to mould and mildews can cause coughing, itchy and burning eyes, headaches, lethargy, shortness of breath and fever. Those who suffer from asthma and allergies are particularly sensitive to moulds.

              The best way to control mould growth is to control moisture. Open windows daily and use a dehumidifier if needed. Avoid drying wet laundry indoors. Open windows when showering and clean bathrooms regularly to keep mould under control.

                7. Pesticides

                Pesticides are used to control insect growth on crops. Pesticide spraying is often not very precise, and particles may spread far beyond the general area where there pesticides were applied. We can also be exposed to pesticides by consuming non-organic fruit and vegetables.

                Exposure to pesticides can impair the neurological system, causing memory loss, loss of coordination, reduced reaction time, reduced visual ability, altered or uncontrollable mood and behaviour, and reduced motor skills. Pesticide exposure is also linked with asthma, allergies, and hypersensitivity, cancer, hormone disruption, and problems with reproduction and fetal development. Children are particularly vulnerable to the harmful effects of pesticides. Even very low levels of exposure during childhood may have adverse health effects.

                To reduce exposure to pesticides, select organic produce wherever possible and choose carefully where you live – avoid living in close proximity to commercial crop growers and vineyards who may be applying large amounts of pesticides.

                8. Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) 

                VOCs are gases that are emitted into the air from products or processes. Breathing VOCs can irritate the eyes, nose and throat, cause difficulty breathing and nausea, and damage the nervous system and other organs. They can also react with other gases to create toxic air pollutants.[7]

                VOCS can be found in a range of common household and office products, including:

                  • Tobacco smoke
                  • Paint, paint remover
                  • Cleaning products, varnishes, wax
                  • Pesticides
                  • Air fresheners
                  • Personal care products and cosmetics
                  • Hobby products such as glue
                  • Office equipment including printers and copiers
                  • Wood burning stoves
                  • Fuel oil, gasoline
                  • Furniture or building products such as flooring, carpet, pressed wood products
                  • Car exhaust in an attached garage

                  Protect yourself from VOCs b:
                  • Selecting products low in VOCs, including paints and other chemicals
                  • Wearing a mask over your nose and mouth while working with VOCs
                  • Open windows and using a fan when working with products containing high VOCs
                  • Let new carpet or new building products air outside to release VOCs before installing them
                  • Not storing products with VOCs indoors, including in garages connected to the building.
                  • Ensuring your office has adequate ventilation to reduce VOCs produced by printers or copiers.

                  9. Radon Gas

                  This is a naturally occurring radioactive gas released from elements in rocks and soil. It can move up through the ground to the air above and into your home through cracks and other holes in the foundation. Your home traps radon inside, where it can build up. Any home may have a radon problem - new and old homes, well-sealed and draughty homes, and homes with or without basements[8]. It’s a good idea to have your home’s radon level tested. One of the best solutions to combat high radon levels is active soil depressurization. This technique will gather and trap the radon from beneath the home, before it is able to enter.

                  Much like carbon monoxide, radon has no taste, smell or colour. Long-term radon exposure can lead to lung cancer. Those who spend large amounts of time on poorly ventilated areas are at the highest risk.

                  10. Air Pollution

                  According to the World Health Organisation, exposure to air pollution causes an estimated 7 million premature deaths each year! [9] Even healthy people can experience health impacts from polluted air, including respiratory irritation or breathing difficulties during exercise or outdoor activities. Your actual risk of adverse effects depends on your current health status, the pollutant type and concentration, and the length of your exposure to the polluted air.

                  High air pollution levels can cause immediate health problems including:[10]

                  • Wheezing, coughing
                  • Fatigue
                  • Added stress to heart and lungs, which must work harder to supply the body with oxygen
                  • Damaged cells in the respiratory system

                  Long-term exposure to high levels of pollution can cause:
                  • Accelerated aging of the lungs
                  • Loss of lung capacity and decreased lung function
                  • Development of diseases such as asthma, bronchitis, emphysema, and possibly cancer
                  • Reduced life span.

                  If you live in a heavily polluted city, wear a mask when exercising or walking outdoors, and stay indoors when pollution levels peak (e.g. when there are strong winds).

                  Breathe Easy – Tips to reduce toxin exposure and protect your lungs

                  • Increase ventilation–Open windows for at least half an hour a day to allow air to circulate through your home. Always open windows when using any cleaning products to ensure adequate ventilation, and avoid cleaning the shower while you are in it, as this increase your exposure to the chemicals.
                  • Select natural cleaning products, laundry products and fragrances – Many commercial cleaning and laundry products contain chemicals and other substances which are harmful to lungs (including many of the substances listed above). Wherever possible, select organic, natural versions of these products to avoid chemical overload.
                  • Add house plants –Plants absorb toxic chemicals (particularly carbon monoxide and formaldehyde) helping to cleanse and refresh the air.
                  • Avoid smoking!Cigarettes contain many of the harmful substances listed above, along with nicotine, tobacco and other carcinogens. Avoiding smoking is the number one way to protect your lungs. If loved ones smoke, ask them to do it outside and away from you. Second-hand smoke is extremely harmful to health.
                  • Consider carefully where you live -Avoid living in close proximity to industrial plants, non-organic crop growers and vineyards, and heavily polluted cities.
                  • Select organic produce wherever possible


                  [1] Asbestos.com. Mesothelioma Statistics. https://www.asbestos.com/mesothelioma/statistics.php
                  [2] Asbestos.com. Mesothelioma and lung cancer. https://www.asbestos.com/cancer/lung-cancer/mesothelioma/
                  [3] Minnesota Department of Health. Carbon Monoxide Poisoning in your Home. http://www.health.state.mn.us/divs/eh/indoorair/co/
                  [4] Wisconsin Department of Health Services. Benzene. https://www.dhs.wisconsin.gov/chemical/benzene.htm
                  [5] Keep ammonia out of your home. April 5, 2013. http://www.healthychild.org/easy-steps/keep-ammonia-out-of-your-home/
                  [6]United States Environmental Protection Agency. Mold. https://www.epa.gov/mold
                  [7] American Lung Association. Volatile Organic Compounds. http://www.lung.org/our-initiatives/healthy-air/indoor/indoor-air-pollutants/volatile-organic-compounds.html
                  [8] United States Environmental Protection Agency. How does radon get into your home?https://iaq.zendesk.com/hc/en-us/articles/211432798-How-does-radon-get-into-your-home-
                  [9] CBS News. The Most Polluted Cities in the World. https://www.cbsnews.com/pictures/the-most-polluted-cities-in-the-world-ranked/
                  [10] Spare the Air: The Effects of Air Pollution http://www.sparetheair.com/health.cfm?page=healthoverall

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