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Environmental Illness


Topic Overview

What is an environmental illness?

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:

  • Those weekend headaches may be caused by a broken furnace leaking carbon monoxide.
  • Materials in new buildings may cause nausea and rashes. And the paper that makes up the outside layers of drywall promotes mold growth. Exposure to these molds may cause symptoms and could lead to asthma attacks.

What causes environmental illnesses?

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:

  • Chemicals in cigarettes are known to cause lung cancer.
  • Exposure to asbestos, an insulating material found in some older buildings, can cause tumors, lung cancer, and other diseases.
  • Wood-burning stoves and poorly vented gas ranges can cause breathing problems.
  • Unsafe drinking water from a rural well polluted with pesticides or other poisons from a nearby industrial plant could cause allergies, cancer, or other problems.
  • Certain chemicals in the workplace may cause sterility, mainly in men.
  • Lead poisoning can cause health problems in children. It can also cause high blood pressure, brain damage, and stomach and kidney problems in adults.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms of an environmental illness may be like those you can get with other conditions, such as:

But your symptoms will depend on the cause of the illness or disease.

If you think that exposure to toxic chemicals or other health hazards could be making you sick, talk to your doctor.

How are environmental illnesses diagnosed?

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.

How are they treated?

Early treatment includes stopping or reducing your exposure to what is making you sick. These things might help:

  • Improve your air quality by getting rid of the source of pollution. Don't allow smoking in your house. If smokers live in or visit your home, ask them to smoke outside.
  • Increase the amount of fresh air coming into your home. Adjust gas stoves, or replace them with electric ones. Check to make sure that exhaust fans work. Installing carbon monoxide alarms in your home can also protect you and your family.
  • Stop the health effects of mold exposure. Keep a dry environment indoors to reduce exposure to mold. Mold should be removed from buildings by trained professionals.

Further treatment will depend on your symptoms and what is causing your illness.

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