Filed under: air qualityexposomeexposurehealthpollutionsoil qualitytap waterwater quality

Search Tips for Taps

Share this article
It's hard to get trustworthy advice when it comes to your drinking water, so we made Tips for Taps to help answer your questions.
Order a Tap Score Water Test and receive personalized support from professional engineers and scientists by phone, email and chat.

How does your environment impact your health?

Environmental pollutants impact your health. Read our primer on 'exposure' and 'the exposome'.

As our environment changes and we spend more time indoors, our health risks change as well. Climate change exacerbates extreme weather events, and those storms and wildfires expose us to new toxicants in our air, water, food and everyday life. For example, if you've ever bee in a wildfire or near one, the smoke can leave you feeling lightheaded, nauseous, and dizzy. Not all exposures lead to an acute or rapid onset of symptoms, though. Most exposures indoors are 'silent'–we do not see or smell or taste them.

Our bodies are incredibly resilient. Faced with environmental stress from air, water, food, chemical products at home, mold, and dust–most of us live relatively unaware of the potential impacts. Every person is different, too. We all have differential susceptibility to contaminants. Our social and economic situations also impact both what we are exposed to and how it impacts us (the 'socio-exposome').These exposures accumulate over our life course.

Exposure does not equate to health risk in a linear way, which is why the science of how environmental pollutants impact our bodies is so complex! Nonetheless, we feel confident in saying that reducing your exposure to harmful toxicants is likely to lower your risk of associated health outcomes. 

Whether inside or outside, in urban areas or near agriculture, our environment affects us. Everyday exposures are so important that scientists are now calling our cumulative environmental exposures and their influence on health the exposome.   

In this article, we focus on specific exposures relevant to your immediate environment: what are they and how can you limit them? But first, let's get on the same page–what are exposures?

Dose and Exposure: How Are We Affected?

Though related, dose and exposure are not quite the same thing. Exposure is the level of toxicant outside the body that you come in contact with, whereas dose is how much gets inside your body. To better understand the study of toxicology–or how anthropogenic toxins like chemicals affect your body and your health– check out our overview on the field of toxicology.

Toxicants can affect the body in many ways. A short-term exposure to a particularly potent chemical is called acute toxicity and is characterized by intense and immediate health impacts. Chronic toxicity occurs when the body is exposed to a chemical for a long time and amasses health effects “slowly”.

We mentioned that exposome science aims to measure all of the exposures someone experiences throughout their lifetime and how this affects their health. The body has built-in mechanisms to tolerate and get rid of toxic chemicals, but these only work up to a certain extent–and people have different tolerances.

Harmful substances often wind up in the blood, which reaches every part of the body. The liver helps to detoxify substances, breaking them down into less harmful ones. The kidneys filter the blood, releasing toxic chemicals in urine. The body also excretes, sweats, and exhales out harmful substances.

Sometimes, however, there is too much of a toxicant to get rid of it. This can result in acute or chronic health effects.

All organ systems can be harmed by exposure to toxicants. The table below shows some examples of toxicants and the systems they affect. We’ve compiled the list from the CDC and added a few key contaminants of interest. Note that the potential effects are sometimes acute (allergic reaction) and sometimes chronic (e.g. Parkinsons).

Organ System

Example Exposures

Potential or Associated Health Effects

Respiratory

Arsenic, Asbestos, Glues

Nickel, Radon, Tobacco Smoke

Asthma

Skin

Arsenic, Cement (chromium), Dioxin, Glues, Mercury, Nickel, Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), Rubber cement

Irritation, Allergic reaction

Liver

Arsenic, Carbon tetrachloride, Chromium, Copper, Lead, Methylene chloride, Perfluorinated alkyl substances (incl. Gen X), Vinyl chloride

Decreased liver function (remember, most toxicants pass through the liver)

Kidney

Arsenic, Cadmium, Chlorinated hydrocarbon solvents, Chromium, Copper, Lead, Mercury

Kidney injuries/decreased function (kidneys are another defender against toxicants)

Cardiovascular

Arsenic, Carbon disulfide, Carbon monoxide, Cadmium, Chromium, Lead, Methylene chloride, Nitrates, Noise, Ozone, Perfluorinated alkyl substances (incl. Gen X), Tobacco smoke, Vinyl chloride

Changes in heart rate, blood pressure, or muscle contraction.

More severe exposure to certain toxicants can cause anemia or leukemia.

Reproductive & Developmental

Arsenic, Carbon disulfide, Ethylene dibromide, Lead, Methylmercury, Perfluorinated alkyl substances (incl. Gen X), Polychlorinated biphenyls

Infertility, Premature birth, Miscarriage, Birth defects

Changes in puberty timing, Changes in menstrual cycle

Hematologic (blood)

Arsenic, Benzene, Nitrates, Radiation

Changes in heart rate, blood pressure, and cardiac muscle contraction  

Neuropsychological

Aluminum, Arsenic, Chromium, Lead, Manganese, Methanol, Tetrachloroethylene, Mercury, Toluene, Vinyl chloride

Ataxia, Coma, Peripheral neuropathy, Parkinson’s disease, Seizures


Indoor Exposure: Sources

Many people assume that staying inside is safer. Walls and windows separate you from the outside air, and water comes out on-command from your faucet. Your food is triple washed and vacuum-sealed. If you’ve read any of our Tips for Taps articles, though, you know that there is a lot more to your indoor environment than meets the eye.

People spend as much as 90% of their time indoors, and as such most of our exposures are experienced indoors. Homes, schools, and office buildings all have exposure risks unique to being inside. Outdoor allergens, pollutants and particulate matter, too, can concentrate indoors. We’ll take you through some of the major exposure risks.

Inhalation

More than oxygen enters our lungs on each breath. Tobacco smoke, wood stoves, candles, space heaters, asbestos, and mold are some examples of indoor sources of air pollution. Household cleaning products can also impact your lungs–many emit toxic volatile organic compounds that have been linked to occupational asthma. If your house was built on soil or rock with uranium in it, the uranium can break down and release radon gas (which concentrates in your home).

The health effects of these indoor pollutants vary: radon and asbestos can cause lung cancer, whereas improperly vented wood stoves can increase the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning by releasing noxious substances.

The levels of many of these indoor pollutants can be limited by proper ventilation. Controlling humidity can limit mold growth, too.

Dermal Contact

Your skin is your biggest organ, and often serves as the first line of defense against harmful substances. Skin contact with any contaminated environmental medium — such as water or dust — can expose you to toxicants. We encounter many of these risks going through everyday activities like bathing, washing your hands, cleaning, or gardening.

Household cleaning products can expose you to harmful chemicals, either during use or after the chemicals have settled on surfaces. These products include bleach, chlorine, ammonia, and other chemicals that irritate the skin. The most common reactions to dermal exposure are irritation and allergic reactions, but certain chemicals can also cause pigment alterations or skin cancer, depending on the type and duration of exposure.

If you have a garden or a backyard where your kids play, pesticides and insecticides in the soil or on plants can lead to unwanted exposures (also through inhalation or ingestion). The most common household pesticide–glyphosate, or RoundUp–is currently hotly debated for its carcinogenic impacts on people using the product in their yards.

Using home remedies for cleaning and minimizing pesticide use are key exposure reduction strategies.

Ingestion (Food & Water)

The food we eat and the water we drink are primary exposure pathways for unwanted contaminants. Small children are more susceptible to toxic exposures because of their size and at a higher risk of being exposed due to their habit of eating everything in sight (e.g. ingesting lead paint can cause lead poisoning quickly).

Soil quality and farming practices are directly associated with food quality. Exposures to pesticides and hormones can unfortunately make it to your plate from the farm. But cooking material also impacts your health. Non-stick pans use chemicals known as 'PFAS' that have long-term, problematic health impacts. Check out our up-to-date guide on PFAS and your health for more details.

Tap water, and especially private well water and surface water, can become contaminated as it moves from the source, through the distribution lines, and to your home. Common concerns that we cover frequently at Tips for Taps are: pesticides, agricultural runoff, and heavy metals. While some of these contaminants are invisible and tasteless, others have funny smells like rotten eggs or turn your water yellow or brown. Not all of these signs indicate exposure to something harmful. Indeed, some of the riskiest contaminants are invisible–e.g. arsenic is odorless and colorless even in very high concentrations.

If you’re concerned about the water coming from your faucet, showerhead, or well, our Tips for Taps blog is a great place to start. We have guides on why people test their water, potential water concerns and how to deal with them. Pipe and faucet materials, leaks, and water treatment are all pieces to the puzzle of understanding what's in your water. If you have concerns about what is in your water, then getting a home water test is a great way to ensure your home health and wellbeing.

Indoor Exposure: Minimizing your Risk

Now that you understand some of the potential risks of toxic exposures, you'll be better prepared to protect yourself!

Prevention is the most effective way to minimize your exposures. Here are some suggestions for where to start:

Inhalation

Ventilating can help reduce the indoor toxicants, and filtering outside air can limit the levels of outdoor pollutants inside. To maintain good air quality, you should also check regularly for leaks and mold and use a high-efficiency vacuum to reduce dust. Limiting fires and candle use can help reduce particles in the air. Cooking with the fume vent on is a must to reduce exposure to polyaromatic hydrocarbons that come off of cooking oil when heated. If you're exposed to a wildfire, check our our guide on wildfire air quality and your health for mitigation strategies. 

Dermal Contact

When you’re shopping for cleaning supplies, pay attention to the labels. For cleaning supplies, it’s always better to use home remedies because store-bought products have a variety of potential irritants. A simple DIY vinegar, lemon and soap cleaning solution is an easy fix that is safer on your hands and lungs than most store-bought cleaning products. This reduces inhalation exposures as well. When you clean, you should always wear gloves and store supplies away from children. Reducing pesticide use can also keep you safe–natural fertilizers and composting are great alternatives.

Ingestion (Food & Water)

For water, we always advocate for regular testing. Once you know what is in your water, you can treat it for any contaminants you find.

As far as food goes, try to avoid foods with additives or preservatives and eat organic if possible. Given how expensive organic food is for many budgets, some people have begun advocating to eat organic for the most risky food categories–e.g. here's a list of 20 foods to buy organic because they typically have higher pesticide/fungicide levels. When you're cooking, using ceramic or cast iron pans can reduce your exposure to PFAS substances. If you’re worried about pests in your garden, try natural insecticides like soap spray or garlic. 

Need more information?

We're primarily in the business of helping you understand what's in your drinking water with a variety of water testing packages, but we're happy to answer any questions you might have about environmental exposures. Get in touch with us here for more information.

 

Article Sources

https://health.mo.gov/living/environment/hazsubstancesites/healtheffects.php https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/csem/csem.asp?csem=33&po=6

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28944245

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27748088 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27854523 https://www.ucsf.edu/news/2017/06/407416/toxic-exposure-chemicals-are-our-water-food-air-and-furniture https://www.osha.gov/SLTC/etools/hurricane/water-sewer-services.html https://www.epa.gov/trinationalanalysis/where-you-live-2016-tri-national-analysis https://www.epa.gov/chemicals-under-tsca https://health.mo.gov/living/environment/hazsubstancesites/healtheffects.php https://www.epa.gov/expobox/exposure-assessment-tools-routes-dermal https://www.cdc.gov/mold/dampness_facts.htm https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/skin/default.html https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/11397-household-chemical-products-and-their-health-risk http://9foundations.forhealth.org/9_Foundations_of_a_Healthy_Building.February_2017.pdf https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/pesticide-residues-in-food



It's hard to get trustworthy advice when it comes to your drinking water, so we made Tips for Taps to help answer your questions. Order a Tap Score Water Test and receive personalized support from professional engineers and scientists by phone, email and chat.

Leave a comment: