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Environmentally Linked Illnesses

Environmentally linked illnesses are a major cause of illness and death. According to the World Health Organization (WHO):

Environmental hazards are responsible for about a quarter of the total burden of disease worldwide. As many as 13 million deaths could be prevented every year by making our environments healthier.

Environmental factors, such as pollution, workplace hazards, radiation and climate change, influence 85 of the 102 categories of diseases listed in the 2004 “World Health Report” (the WHO’s leading publication).

Examples of illnesses and conditions currently being linked with environmental exposures include:


  • Testicular and ovarian cancer related to exposure to endocrine disrupters
  • Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, leukemia, brain tumours and other cancers related to exposure to pesticides
  • An estimated 30 percent of lung cancer cases in developed countries due to environmental causes, such as occupational hazards and outdoor air pollution
  • Possible link between increased risk of leukemia and exposure to electromagnetic fields
  • Breast cancer linked with environmental exposures to endocrine disrupters, heavy metals, solvents and other chemicals present in outdoor and indoor air, foods (herbicides) and some consumer products (such as cosmetics and PVC plastic)

Learning and Behavioural Disabilities

  • Inattention and lowered IQ after exposure to lead, mercury, PCBs, dioxins, some pesticides, solvents and flame retardants
  • It is suspected that various environmental contaminants may contribute to the development of autism

Birth Defects, Perinatal and Reproductive Problems

  • Women exposed to various chemicals and environmental risk factors more likely to have low birth-weight babies, premature babies and infants with various health problems. Many of these chemicals are endocrine disruptors, such as PBDEs, BPA and phthalates (plastics), dioxins, furans, some pesticides, and heavy metals, such as lead and mercury
  • Undescended testicles related to exposure to PCBs, dioxin and pesticides
  • A portion of congenital anomalies related to pregnant women’s exposure to chemicals and radioactivity
  • Reduced fertility in both women and men linked to lead, solvent and pesticide exposure. Changes in sperm quality and male reproductive health linked with phthalates, PCBs and other endocrine-disrupting chemicals
  • Miscarriages associated with exposure to lead, solvents and pesticides

Heart and Respiratory Problems

  • Each year, approximately 2.5 million deaths from cardiovascular disease attributable to environmental factors, such as lead exposure and air pollution
  • Each year, more than 1.5 million deaths worldwide as a result of respiratory infections attributable to outdoor and indoor air pollution
  • Number of individuals with asthma has increased fourfold in last 20 years – air pollution a contributing factor
  • Increased number of doctor visits, hospital admissions and deaths with high smog index
  • Crowded housing and exposure to air pollutants in the workplace and at home increase number of cases of tuberculosis

Some people are more prone to environmentally linked illnesses than others. Those at greatest risk include children, women and older people. As the fetus is at the greatest risk of all, pregnant women need to be particularly cautious of “hidden exposures” in their environment – health hazards such as pesticides, paints and solvents, lead, plastics, harsh cleaning products, asbestos and heavy metals.

For more information on environmentally linked illnesses, visit the Creating a Healthy Environment for Kids website.

Prevention and the Precautionary Principle: Better Safe than Sorry

Preventive measures could substantially reduce the incidence of many of these diseases. For example, ensuring clean drinking water, reducing air pollution, regulating toxic substances and stopping climate change would all reduce these health impacts.

Due to increasing evidence that links these and other illnesses with the environment, many environmental and health activists advocate using the Precautionary Principle. The Precautionary Principle states that when there is an activity that could threaten human health or the environment, precautions should be taken before there is complete scientific proof that the activity is harmful. The safety of potential toxins should be tested before they are used and before they can cause harm.

To learn more about the Precautionary Principle, visit the Science and Environmental Health Network.


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  • A publication of:
  • Women's College Hospital