Environmental Health FAQs

Human health is like a jigsaw puzzle, with many pieces making up a picture. When someone develops asthma or cancer, we can never say that it was one piece of the puzzle alone that caused it to happen. But if we can reduce toxic hazards and increase the healthy pieces, our picture of health will be brighter.

How much does environment matter to health?

Environmental factors (not including personal habits like diet and exercise) are responsible for 23% of premature deaths worldwide. Studies of genetics show us that it’s the interaction between genes and environment that can alter our life-long health.

Some of these environmental factors are hard to control, such as the stressful events in our lives and the pollution in our neighborhoods. But there are choices we can make in our own homes to create healthy environments where we spend most of our time.

When babies are growing and developing, their bodies respond to the environment in ways that show up in adulthood. Healthy environments help each of us reach our full potential for learning, working and living full lives. We can save lives and prevent lifetimes of disease if we can reduce exposure to pollution in our air, water and soil—and our schools, work places, homes and buildings.

How much does a healthy home matter to health?

We all carry in our bodies traces of hazardous chemicals that started out in the environment around us. There is strong evidence that some of those exposures increase the risk of diabetes, heart disease, asthma. lung disease obesity, and cancer.

When we make choices that reduce those exposures in our homes, we can reduce disease risk. Because people spend an average of 90% of time indoors, our homes are very important environments.

We can also reduce the pollution that goes down the drain, into the trash, up the chimney or runs off of our lawns. Reducing these hazards will also protect the environments in Oregon that we share.

What is the difference between  “hazard” and “toxic” and “pollution”?

Hazard: has the potential to cause harm
Example: Saws are injury hazards, fires are burn hazards, pesticides are a poisoning hazard

Toxic: is a hazard to health, as different from injury
Example: Cigarette smoke is toxic to breathe because it triggers asthma, harms the lungs and raises cancer risk.

Pollution: a toxic hazard released in the environment
Example: Mercury is a naturally occuring metal. But when it is released into the air from burning coal, it becomes pollution.

Just because a toxic hazard is present as pollution does not mean everyone will get sick. It also depends on where, when, how and in what amount a person is exposed.

What is exposure?

Exposure happens when a substance gets into the body. Ingestion: (eating, drinking, or touching hand to mouth), Inhalation: nose or mouth (breathing)Absorption: eyes or skin (absorption).

Babies can also be exposed before they are born, if substances can be carried through the mother’s placenta.

Babies and young children breathe, eat and drink more than adults do. They also behave in different ways: crawling on the floor, exploring things with their mouths. For this reason, babies and children often have greater exposure than adults.

How much is too much?

Almost anything can be toxic, depending on exposure. Aspirin is a good example: the right amount can ease pain, but too much can make you sick.

For some toxic substances, like the heavy metal lead, even the very smallest amount of exposure can cause harm. Chemicals that mimic hormones in the body can appear safe at higher exposures, but cause the most harm with low doses.

The amount that can cause harm also depends on the person. Toxics may interfere with a child’s developing body in ways that would not happen in an adult. People who have asthma or allergies are more sensitive to air pollution. Asbestos or radon exposure are more likely to cause cancer in people who smoke.

If there is no warning label, is it safe?

Not always. We know a lot more today about the hazards posed by chemicals in everyday products than we did a generation ago. We know more about how toxics can migrate out of products and into household air and dust, and how they can harm health.

House paint is no longer made with high levels of lead. Some of the most toxic flame retardants, plastic ingredients (phthalates), andoff-gassing chemicals (like formaldehyde) have been removed from toys, home furnishings, cleaning products and cosmetics. But the systems are not yet in place to make sure that chemical ingredients are safe before products hit the shelves.

Our nation’s chemical safety law was updated in 2015 with a better understanding of health science. But with hundreds of chemicals are still used in products without proof that they are healthy and safe. Until we can be sure, it is good for our health to reduce exposure where we can.

The way you maintain your home can make a big difference to your family’s health. Get a healthy homes checkup with our guide and tips.