There are many things in our environment, both inside and outside of our homes, which affect our overall health. There are varying degrees of risk associated with certain substances found in the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the foods we eat. Some of these substances pose serious health hazards as they may cause illness and disease. Children, older adults, and people with heart or lung disease may be more vulnerable to certain environmental risks.
Fortunately, there are things we can do to limit our exposure to common environmental risks and protect our health. Listed below is a brief overview of common environmental risks and steps you can take to reduce exposure.
Outdoor Air Pollution
Air pollution consists of different gases, droplets and particles that reduce the quality of the air. Vehicles, as well as industry and construction, contribute to air pollution. Ground-level ozone or smog is the major part of air pollution in most cities.
What you can do:
- Check pollution levels or the "air quality index" in your area. This index rates air quality conditions as good, moderate, unhealthy for sensitive groups, unhealthy, very unhealthy, or hazardous. This information is provided in newspapers and television and radio weather reports. The local air quality index for each day is also provided www.AIRNow.org.
- Stay indoors as much as you can when pollution levels are high. If you must go outside, limit outside activities to the early morning hours or wait until after sunset.
- Don't exercise or exert yourself outdoors when the air quality reports indicate unhealthy conditions.
- Take extra care if you or your family member has a chronic heart or lung problem. Talk with your health care professional about other steps you can take.
Water from a public water supply is routinely tested for chemicals to make sure it is safe. If your water is from a well or other private water supply, it is your responsibility to have it tested. Water may become unsafe after it gets to your home. Lead may get into your water through the plumbing in your home. Even if you don't have lead or copper pipes, brass faucets and fittings can also leach lead.
What you can do:
- Clear your pipes before drinking. Anytime the water from a faucet has not been used for six hours or longer, run the water until it becomes as cold as it will get (this may take up to two minutes). This will flush out water that has been sitting in your home's pipes and picking up lead.
- Drink and cook with cold water only. Use only water from the cold-water tap for drinking and cooking. Hot water from your pipes is likely to contain higher levels of lead. If tap water needs to be heated for cooking or drinking, use a microwave or stove.
- If your water is from a well or other private water supply, have it tested at least annually as recommended by the Environmental Protection Agency.
- If your water is from a public supplier, review the annual water quality report (sometimes called consumer confidence reports) that must be provided to you each year. This report tells you where your water comes from, the contaminants that have been detected in your water and how this compares to drinking water standards. Check here for information about your water supplier.
- If you are concerned about specific contaminants that can vary from home to home, such as lead, consider having your water tested by a certified laboratory.
- Many households use some kind of pesticide such as a bug spray or garden weed killer. Pesticides can be dangerous if they are not used properly or stored safely. Pesticide residue may also be found in food.
- What you can do:
- Wash and scrub all fresh fruits and vegetables thoroughly under running water.
- Peel fruits and vegetables when possible to reduce pesticide residue as well as dirt and bacteria. Discard outer leaves of leafy vegetables. Trim fat from meat and skin from poultry and fish because some pesticide residues collect in fat.
- Eat a variety of foods and consider buying organically grown foods whenever possible.
- Use non-chemical methods to treat pest problems. Around the home this may include removing sources of food and water (like leaky pipes) and destroying pest shelters and breeding sites (like litter and plant debris).
- If you must use pesticides, always read the label first and follow all of the directions and precautions; use only the amount indicated and only for the purpose listed.
- Protect your skin, your eyes, and your lungs while using pesticides. Always change clothes and wash hands right after use.
- When using a pesticide, move children, their toys, and pets away from the area until it has dried or for the time the label indicates.
- Always store pesticides in the original container in a safe place and out of reach of children and pets. Never store near food or medical supplies.
Environmental Tobacco Smoke
Environmental tobacco smoke is the mixture of smoke that comes from the burning end of a cigarette, pipe, or cigar and the smoke exhaled by the smoker. There are respiratory health risks associated with environmental tobacco smoke. Infants and young children are especially at risk.
What you can do:
- Minimize or eliminate smoking in your home. Consider asking guests who smoke to do so outdoors.
- If smoking indoors cannot be avoided, increase the ventilation in the area. Open windows or use exhaust fans.
- Do not smoke if children are present, particularly infants and toddlers.
Many older homes have lead-based paint or lead water pipes. Homes built before 1978 may have lead paint. Homes built before 1950 may have lead plumbing pipes. Lead poisoning is a serious health risk to children. The most common cause is from children putting hands or toys with lead dust on them in their mouths or eating lead paint chips.
Federal, state and local agencies have acknowledged that children are more vulnerable to the harmful effects of lead because their nervous systems, including the brain, are still developing. Children's blood levels tend to increase rapidly from 6 to 12 months of age, and then tend to peak at 18-24 months of age. Children, especially age six and younger, tend to absorb greater amounts of lead than adults do even when exposed to the same amount of lead. Further complicating the issue are behaviors that young children exhibit, including increased hand to mouth activity, a tendency to crawl and play in spaces that could be contaminated by lead, and a lack of awareness of safe and sanitary habits. The damage from lead poisoning is life long. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) have established guidelines for childhood lead testing and both strongly urge that children under the age of six be tested for lead once a year.
What you can do:
- Take precautions with your drinking water (see above).
- Have your children tested for lead. Often this test is free at local health clinics.
- Find out if your home has lead. If you are buying or renting a residence built before 1978, federal law requires that you be told if lead-based paint was used. If you are already living in a residence built before 1978, have your residence tested.
- Use a professional expert if you need to repair or remove lead painted surfaces. Certified Lead Abatement Contractors use special methods to permanently eliminate lead hazards. Dry scraping or sanding surfaces with lead paint can be a serious source of lead exposure to children.
- Keep children away from peeling paint and wash children's hands frequently, especially before they eat.
- Wet mop floors and wipe furniture, windowsills and other dusty surfaces.
- Learn more about lead and its powerful influence on health and well-being. The following websites contain a wealth of practical, helpful information:
- Coalition to End Childhood Lead Poisoning
- Alliance to End Childhood Lead Poisoning
- Keep Kids Healthy
- Centers for Disease Control Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program