Top of the page
An environmental illness can occur when you are exposed to toxins or substances in the environment that make you sick. These health hazards may be found where you live, work, or play.
Maybe you have headaches that only occur on weekends. Or maybe you began to feel sick and got a rash after moving into a newly built home. These symptoms can be caused by exposure to toxic chemicals. For example:
Exposure to some types of chemicals can cause an environmental illness. The more of the chemical you are exposed to, the more likely you are to get ill. Examples include:
These chemicals are known to cause lung cancer.
Asbestos is an insulating material found in some older buildings. It can cause tumours, lung cancer, and other diseases.
These can produce smoke or gases that can cause breathing problems.
For example, water from a rural well polluted with pesticides or other poisons from a nearby industrial plant could cause allergies, cancer, or other problems.
Some may affect fertility.
Lead can cause health problems, most commonly in children. It can also cause high blood pressure, brain damage, and stomach and kidney problems in adults.
Symptoms of an environmental illness depend on what is causing it. The symptoms may be like those you can get with other conditions. Examples are:
If you think that exposure to toxic chemicals or other health hazards could be making you sick, talk to your doctor.
An environmental illness can be hard to diagnose. You and your doctor may not know what is causing your symptoms. Or you may mistake your symptoms for another problem. Exposure to toxic chemicals can cause a wide range of common medical problems or make them worse.
An exposure history, which is a set of questions about your home, workplace, habits, jobs, lifestyle, and hobbies, can help you find out what is making you sick. It may point to chemicals or other hazards that you've been exposed to recently or in the past.
Keep a journal of your symptoms, and discuss it with your doctor. It may help you find patterns in your symptoms. This can help you and your doctor find out what is causing your illness.
Early treatment includes stopping or reducing your exposure to what is making you sick. These things might help:
Don't allow smoking in your house. If someone who smokes lives in or visits your home, ask them to smoke outside. Adjust gas stoves, or replace them with electric ones. Installing carbon monoxide alarms in your home can also protect you and your family.
Have good ventilation by opening windows and doors, using exhaust fans in bathrooms and kitchens, and running whole-house or fresh-air ventilation systems. Check to make sure that exhaust fans work. Learn how to get the ventilation you need in your house (PDF).
Keep a dry environment indoors to reduce exposure to mould. If you do find mould, it should be removed. If the mouldy area is less than 1 m (3 ft) by 1 m (3 ft), you can probably remove the mould yourself. But if the mouldy area is bigger, a trained professional should remove the mould.
Further treatment will depend on your symptoms and what is causing your illness.
Health Tools help you make wise health decisions or take action to improve your health.
Common indoor pollutants that most affect health include:footnote 1
Second-hand smoke comes from the burning end of a cigarette, cigar, or pipe and the smoke that someone who smokes exhales. The smoke contains nicotine and many other harmful chemicals. Breathing second-hand smoke can cause or worsen health problems including cancer, asthma, coronary artery disease, and respiratory infections. It can make your eyes and nose burn and cause a sore throat.
Second-hand smoke is especially bad for babies and young children whose lungs are still developing. Children who breathe second-hand smoke are more likely to have ear infections, pneumonia, and bronchitis in the first few years of their lives. Second-hand smoke can make asthma symptoms worse in children.
If you are pregnant, it is important that you not smoke and that you avoid second-hand smoke. You are more likely to give birth to a baby who weighs less than expected (low birth weight) if you smoke. And your baby may have a greater risk for sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). Babies whose mothers are exposed to second-hand smoke during pregnancy have a higher risk for health problems.
Second-hand aerosol from vapes does not contain as much nicotine and other harmful chemicals as second-hand tobacco smoke does. But there is a concern about possible health risks from second-hand aerosol exposure.
Radon is a colourless, odourless radioactive gas that can enter your home through cracks in concrete walls and floors and through floor drains. The most common source of radon is uranium that normally exists in the soil or rock on which homes are built. Problems show up when the concentration of radon builds up in a home or building. Both old or new homes can have problems with radon even if they don't have a basement.
Exposure to radon gas is the second leading cause of lung cancer. (Tobacco smoke is the leading cause.) The risk of radon-associated lung cancer is much higher for people who smoke than for those who don't smoke.footnote 2
You cannot smell or see radon. But it's easy to test for it with a do-it-yourself kit available in some hardware stores or online. Visit Health Canada's Take Action on Radon website at https://takeactiononradon.ca for more information.
Wood stoves that are not properly maintained and vented can give off tiny particles (particulates) and gases, including carbon monoxide, nitrogen, and hydrocarbons. Children in homes heated with wood stoves are at increased risk for respiratory problems. Gas ranges, particularly when they are not well-vented or when they are used as a source of heat, may produce nitrogen dioxide, which can cause respiratory problems.
Exposure to building materials, products used for home improvement, and textiles can cause health problems. For example, particleboard, insulation, carpet adhesives, and other household products emit formaldehyde, which can cause nausea, respiratory problems, dry or inflamed skin, and eye irritation. Newly built homes and the confined spaces of mobile homes can be a particular problem. Using environmentally safe products—such as paint that contains a low level of or no volatile organic compounds (VOCs)—can reduce the chemical load on your body.
Experts coined the term "sick building syndrome" to describe acute symptoms that occur only during time spent in a particular building and that cannot be explained by any specific illness or cause.
Symptoms include headache, dry cough, dry or itchy skin, dizziness, nausea, difficulty concentrating, fatigue, sensitivity to odours, and irritation of the eyes, nose, or throat. Typically the symptoms improve after you leave the building.
Poor ventilation that restricts fresh air flow inside can be a cause of sick building syndrome. Carpet, adhesives, upholstery, manufactured wood, pesticides, and cleaning fluids can give off volatile organic compounds (VOCs), including formaldehyde. High concentrations of VOCs can cause cancer. Unvented gas and kerosene space heaters, woodstoves, fireplaces, and gas stoves can produce carbon monoxide and nitrogen dioxide. These gases can harm your health.
Also, chemicals that get into a building from the outside can cause sick building syndrome. Pollutants from cars and trucks and exhaust from plumbing vents and building machinery can enter a building through vents.
Bacteria and moulds can breed in stagnant water that builds up in humidifiers, drain pans, and ducts, or where water collects on carpet, ceiling tiles, and insulation. Humidifier fever is an illness caused by toxins from microorganisms that grow not only in large heating and cooling systems in buildings but also in home systems and humidifiers. Legionella pneumophila is an indoor bacterium that can cause Legionnaires' disease.
Some viruses can survive on household surfaces, such as counters or floors, or they can get spread through the air when an infected person sneezes or coughs.
Pet dander, pollen, dust mites, moulds, and rat and mouse urine are allergens that can cause asthma attacks, allergic rhinitis, and other lung problems. Symptoms of illness caused by biological contaminants include sneezing, watery eyes, shortness of breath, lethargy, dizziness, and digestive problems.
Exposure early in life to indoor allergens such as moulds may increase the risk of allergies or asthma.footnote 3 When modern building materials get wet, they provide an ideal place for the growth of moulds. Allergies to moulds can also make asthma attacks worse or cause other breathing problems.
Asbestos is an insulating material commonly used from the 1950s to 1970s for soundproofing and to cover floors, ceilings, water pipes, and heating ducts. When this material becomes crumbly or frayed, asbestos fibres can be released into the air. Breathing asbestos fibres may cause lung cancer, asbestosis (scarring of the lung tissue), or mesothelioma.
You can use the following tips to help avoid health problems that are caused by allergens in your home.
This can help reduce allergens. There are many ways to control dust and dust mites in your home, such as washing bedding in hot water to kill dust mites and eliminating furnishings, such as drapes, that collect dust.
Ideas include dusting and vacuuming often and regularly cleaning areas where your pet sleeps, such as pet beds or cages.
These fans are typically installed in kitchens and bathrooms. They can help get rid of moisture that allows microorganisms, including moulds, to grow. Ventilating attic and crawl spaces and keeping humidity levels below 50% can help prevent moisture buildup in building materials.
Ideas include preventing leaks, removing wet materials, storing fireplace wood outside the home, and using a dehumidifier during humid weather. Try to:
Many of the products you use to clean your home or use for hobbies and home improvement projects contain potentially hazardous chemicals. Some can be toxic and in sufficient doses can cause eye and respiratory problems, headaches, dizziness, visual problems, and memory impairment. You can use the following precautions to help prevent problems.
This is one of the most important ways you can protect yourself.
When you use cleaning or other products, be sure to open windows or use an exhaust fan.
For example, do not mix chlorine bleach and ammonia. Some mixtures can create toxic fumes that can be fatal.
Vinegar, lemon juice, boric acid, or baking soda can be used instead of store-bought household cleaners. And they are less damaging to you and to the environment.
Methylene chloride is in certain products such as paint strippers, adhesive removers, and aerosol spray paints. If you use products that contain this chemical, make sure you have adequate ventilation or use them outdoors, if possible. Also, wear gloves to avoid skin contact. But whenever you can, use environmentally safe products instead.
Benzene can cause cancer. Benzene is found in tobacco smoke, fuels, and paint supplies.
Dry-cleaned goods may give off chemicals that can cause skin rashes, headaches, and dizziness. If your clothes have a strong odour when you pick them up from the cleaners, hang them outside, if possible.
You can use the following tips to help prevent indoor air pollution from wood stoves and gas ranges.
This type of wood is treated with chemicals.
Have chimneys, flues, and furnaces inspected each year.
If your gas stove has a persistent yellow flame, it may be improperly adjusted. Ask your gas company to adjust the burners so the flame tips are blue.
Consider changing to an electric stove.
Polluted air comes from many sources, such as factories, cars, buses, trucks, and power plants. And there are other sources that you may not think of, such as dry cleaners, wildfires, and dust.
There are at least six major components of air pollution.
Ozone is a gas that exists at ground level as well as miles above the earth. It's made by a chemical reaction between nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in the presence of heat and sunlight. "Good" ozone occurs naturally about 10 to 30 miles above the earth's surface. There, in the stratosphere, it forms a layer that protects the earth's surface from the sun's harmful rays. At ground level, "bad" ozone (smog) exists. Exhaust from vehicles, industrial emissions, gasoline vapours, and chemical solvents are major sources of nitrogen oxides and VOCs. Add sunlight and hot weather to the mix, and harmful concentrations of ozone may develop.
Particulates include dust, dirt, soot, smoke, and liquid droplets found in the air. They come from many sources, such as vehicles, factories, construction sites, unpaved roads, and burning wood. Other particulates are formed when gases from burning fuels react with water vapour and sunlight. This can result from the combustion of fuels in motor vehicles and from industrial and power plants.
In cities with lots of traffic, most of the carbon monoxide put into the air comes from vehicle exhaust. It also comes from manufacturing processes, wood burning, and forest fires. Indoor sources include cigarettes and space heaters.
When mixed with other particles in the air, nitrogen dioxide can often be seen as a reddish brown layer over many urban areas. Sources are fuels burned by vehicles, electric utilities, and industrial plants. Nitrogen dioxide is one of the nitrogen oxides, a group of highly reactive gases that contain various amounts of nitrogen and oxygen.
This gas is formed when fuels containing sulfur are burned. Examples are when coal and oil burn, when gasoline is extracted from oil, or when metals are extracted from ore. Sulfur dioxide is put into the air when fossil fuel is burned, such as by coal-fired power plants. Other sources are industries that create products from metallic ore, coal, and crude oil or those that burn coal or oil, such as petroleum refineries or metal processing facilities.
Leaded gasoline used to be the main source of lead in the air. But because leaded fuels have been phased out, the main sources of lead emissions are metals-processing facilities, especially lead smelters.
Air pollution is a threat to your health. And it also damages crops, trees, water, and animals. The different sources of air pollution can cause different problems.
Because of the heat factor, ground-level ozone is a summertime air pollutant that can be dangerous, especially for people with respiratory illnesses. Problems include:
Very small particulates that can get into your lungs are especially harmful to your health and may increase your risk of lung cancer and heart problems. Particulates in the air you breathe can cause:
Carbon monoxide reduces the body's ability to deliver oxygen to tissues and organs, such as the heart and brain. It is especially dangerous for people who have heart problems. Carbon monoxide can be fatal to those exposed to extremely high levels. Every year carbon monoxide poisoning is a leading cause of deaths from toxic chemicals. People with carbon monoxide poisoning may have:
Nitrogen oxides cause many problems, including:
Sulfur dioxide causes:
Lead may cause serious health problems, including:
Your drinking water may come from a public water system or a well, or you may use bottled water. Public water systems are regulated by provincial, territorial, federal, and municipal authorities. But water from a well may need testing to make sure it is safe to drink. You may be able to use a water filter or a water purification system to provide safe water. It is important for you to know where your drinking water comes from, if it is treated, and if it's safe to drink.
Be aware that water can be contaminated by organisms such as bacteria or fungi, by chemicals such as pesticides, and by metals such as lead or mercury.
Here are ways you can avoid pollution in your drinking water.
If you have a private well, you are responsible for getting your well water tested to see if it is safe to drink. You may want to get your well water tested regularly to make sure it is safe. Also make sure that the well is not located too close to a septic system.
If you are on a public water system, a local agency will let you know when there is a problem with the water. Follow all instructions for purifying your water (commonly called "boil orders") or for using other water sources. Authorities will tell your community when it is safe to drink from the public water supply again.
Exposure to pesticides may come from residual agricultural pesticides in foods; from household or workplace products used to control rodents, insects, and termites; and from disinfectants and fungicides. The most likely ways you are exposed are small quantities of pesticides in the foods you eat and by direct contact with surfaces (such as plants, soils, or structures) where pesticides have been used.
If not used properly, both workplace and household pesticides can be dangerous. Exposure to high levels of some pesticides can cause headaches, dizziness, muscle twitching, nausea, weakness, and tingling sensations. Some experts believe that some pesticides may cause cancer or damage to the central nervous system.footnote 4 For agricultural workers, exposure to pesticides has been linked with an increased risk of non-Hodgkin lymphoma.footnote 5
Pesticide exposure during pregnancy has been associated with miscarriage, fetal death, and early childhood cancers such as acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL). Indoor use of pesticides increases children's risk of brain tumours, ALL, and birth defects. Children can be poisoned by stored pesticides, so these should always be kept out of reach. Health Canada recommends that children have as little exposure to pesticides as possible.footnote 6
Most people should not eat more than 150 g (5 oz) per week of fish that are known to have higher mercury levels. These include fresh or frozen tuna (not canned "light" tuna), shark, swordfish, marlin, orange roughy, and escolar. Some people need to restrict high-mercury fish even more: footnote 7
Most Canadians don't need to limit how much canned (white) albacore tuna they eat each week. But women who are or may become pregnant, nursing mothers, and children need to limit canned albacore tuna intake to no more than:
Health Canada has no restrictions on eating fish and shellfish that are lower in mercury. These include salmon, rainbow trout, pollock, herring, shrimp, mussels, clams, oysters, and canned "light" tuna.
Check local advisories about the safety of fish caught by family and friends in your local lakes, rivers, and coastal areas.
Some people are concerned about bisphenol A (BPA). This is a chemical found in some types of plastic (polycarbonate) bottles. BPA also is used to line the inside of some types of food cans and other containers. A study has shown that people who have high levels of BPA in their urine have a greater risk for heart disease.footnote 8 And a group of experts concluded that bisphenol A may have some effect on the behaviour, brain, and prostate gland of a developing baby (fetus) or young child.footnote 9, footnote 10 Health Canada has banned plastic baby bottles that contain the chemical bisphenol A (BPA). Don't use bottles marked with the number 7 or the letters "PC" near the recycle symbol. You can use glass or BPA-free plastic bottles instead. Visit the Government of Canada's webpage on bisphenol A at www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/services/food-nutrition/food-safety/packaging-materials/bisphenol.html for more information.
In the past, a group of substances called polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) were used in electrical equipment, plastics, and dyes. Although they are no longer made in North America, they remain in the environment. Exposure to PCBs has been linked to health problems, especially mental functions such as memory and attention in children.footnote 11 Exposure to PCBs also has been linked to sperm problems in men.footnote 12 Visit the Government of Canada's webpage on PCBs at www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/services/healthy-living/your-health/environment/pcbs.html for more information.
Chemicals called phthalates may cause problems with the reproductive organs of infants and young children, especially boys. Phthalates can be found in some plastic items (such as some medical devices) and in products such as powders, lotions, and shampoos.footnote 13, footnote 14
Silicosis is a lung disease caused by breathing in tiny pieces of sand or silica dust. Silica is a common mineral found in sand and rock. Breathing in silica may be a risk in certain jobs, such as construction, mining, rock drilling, sandblasting, and masonry. Silicosis may also be a risk for people who work with glass or ceramics.
Silicosis can cause breathing problems and damage to the lungs. Symptoms may appear many years after exposure to silica. But they can occur much sooner when there is a high level of exposure.
Silicosis can't be cured, but medicines can help manage the symptoms and treat problems such as infections.
To help prevent silicosis, you can do things to avoid dust exposure. For example, you can wear a mask or other device that prevents the fine silica dust from getting into your lungs. Employers are legally responsible for limiting exposure for workers and taking steps to protect workers.
Call Poison Control Centre now if:
Symptoms of an environmental illness depend on what exposure to a health hazard you may have had. The symptoms may be like those you can get with other conditions. Talk to your doctor if you think you have been exposed to something and have:
You may find it helpful to create a written exposure history to take to your doctor. This may help identify the cause of your illness.
CitationsLogue JM, et al. (2012). A method to estimate the chronic health impact of air pollutants in U.S. residences. Environmental Health Perspectives, 120(2): 216–222.Health Canada (2013). Radon—Reduction guide for Canadians. Health Canada. https://www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/services/environmental-workplace-health/reports-publications/radiation/radon-reduction-guide-canadians-health-canada-2013.html. Accessed May 25, 2023.Iossifova YY, et al. (2009). Mold exposure during infancy as a predictor of potential asthma development. Annals of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology, 102(2): 131–137.Baldi I, et al. (2011). Neurobehavioral effects of long-term exposure to pesticides: Results from the 4-year follow-up of the PHYTONER Study. Occupational and Environmental Medicine, 68(2): 108–115.Fritschi L, et al. (2005). Occupational exposure to pesticides and risk of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. American Journal of Epidemiology, 162(9): 849–857.Health Canada, et al. (2007). Pesticides and health. http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/ewh-semt/alt_formats/hecs-sesc/pdf/pubs/contaminants/pesticides-eng.pdf. Accessed June 9, 2017.Health Canada (2008, updated 2019). Mercury in fish: Consumption advice: Making informed choices about fish. Available online: http://www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/services/food-nutrition/food-safety/chemical-contaminants/environmental-contaminants/mercury/mercury-fish.html.Melzer D, et al. (2010). Association of urinary bisphenol A concentration with heart disease: Evidence from NHANES 2003/06. Public Library of Science ONE, 5(1): e8673. Also available online: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2800195/?tool=pubmed.National Toxicology Program, Center for the Evaluation of Risks to Human Reproduction (2008). NPT-CERHR Monograph on the Potential Human Reproductive and Developmental Effects of Bisphenol A (NIH Publication No. 08-5994). Available online: http://cerhr.niehs.nih.gov/evals/bisphenol/bisphenol.pdf.Braun JM, et al. (2011). Impact of early-life bisphenol A exposure on behavior and executive function in children. Pediatrics, 128(5): 873–882.Chen A, et al. (2011). Developmental neurotoxicants in e-waste: An emerging health concern. Environmental Health Perspectives, 119(4): 431–438.McAuliffe ME, et al. (2012). Environmental exposure to polychlorinated biphenyls and p,p'-DDE and sperm sex-chromosome disomy. Environmental Health Perspectives, 120(4): 535–540.National Toxicology Program, Center for the Evaluation of Risks to Human Reproduction (2006). NPT-CERHR Monograph on the Potential Human Reproductive and Developmental Effects of Di(2-Ethylhexyl) Phthalate (DEHP) (NIH Publication No. 06-4476). Available online: http://ntp.niehs.nih.gov/ntp/ohat/phthalates/dehp/DEHP-Monograph.pdf.Sathyanarayana S, et al. (2008). Baby care products: Possible sources of infant phthalate exposure. Pediatrics, 121(2): e260–e268.
Adaptation Date: 7/14/2023
Adapted By: Alberta Health Services
Adaptation Reviewed By: Alberta Health Services
To learn more about Healthwise, visit Healthwise.org.
© 1995-2023 Healthwise, Incorporated. All rights reserved. Healthwise, Healthwise for every health decision, and the Healthwise logo are trademarks of Healthwise, Incorporated.