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Now that we’ve explored how our environment is being saturated with the 80,000-plus industrial chemicals in use today, it’s time to take a look at the effects this toxic chemical exposure is having on our health. Environmental toxins have been linked to a variety of adverse health outcomes, including…

  • Birth defects
  • Miscarriage, spontaneous abortion, and prenatal death
  • Neurological disorders
  • Lower IQ
  • Learning disabilities
  • Behavioral problems in children
  • Autism
  • Asthma
  • Increases in obesity & diabetes
  • Reproductive problems
  • Sexual abnormalities
  • Premature puberty, especially in girls
  • Many types of cancer
  • Plus much more


One review of the research found a direct link between chemical pollution and 120 different health disorders, and evidence strongly suggested a link for another 33. (This was out of 198 disorders studied.) For the remaining ones, there simply wasn’t enough evidence to reach a conclusion one way or the other. (Shabecoff & Shabecoff, 2010, p. 54; visit www.healthandenvironment .org and click on the “CHE Toxicant and Disease Database” to see the most recently updated list.)

As Carolyne Myss, Ph.D., and C. Norman Shealy, M.D., state: “It is now recognized that chemical pollution is a major contributor to illness, especially to cancer.” (Myss & Shealy, 1993, p. 49) Chemical exposures are such an important health variable that scientists have even added it as one of the “omes” that comprise our genetic material: The Exposome. Your exposome is the master list of toxins encountered by the typical human body over a lifetime, ranging from environmental pollutants to natural byproducts of metabolism. The exposome may be bigger than the genome, and many experts believe it almost certainly has a greater influence on health. (Wired, March 2011, p. 28)

Baby boomers were the first group to be exposed to significant quantities of the largest number of chemicals, and this also happens to correlate with a rise in chronic illness among subsequent generations. (Shabecoff & Shabecoff, 2010, p. 36) In fact, a wide range of chronic health problems – everything from asthma and obesity to rates of autism and behavioral disorders in children – continue to climb. We SHOULD NOT assume that chemical toxins are responsible for all of this increase; that would be absurd. But they are certainly one arm of the multi-pronged beast that is leading to chronic illness in modern society. Other factors include things like poor diet, increasing obesity, lack of exercise (which affects all the body’s systems), less time spent outdoors and in nature (which hinders the development of the immune system), an overly sanitized environment (which does the same), and increases in stress from the pressures of modern society.

The effects of too many chemicals

One of the big unknowns revolves around the sheer number of toxic chemicals we’re exposed to on a daily basis, and how these cumulative exposures might be affecting our health. “Substances in combination can have more serious effects than each does alone,” note Philip & Alice Shabecoff. Certain combinations might even render benign substances harmful: “Some harmless chemicals can prove toxic in combination with others that otherwise are also harmless.” (2010, p. 94)

Information on the effects of toxic chemicals

Each chemical affects the body in different ways, and can even have different consequences depending on whether it’s eaten, inhaled, or absorbed. We discuss the health problems related to each chemical in detail in our various chapters on lead, pesticides, air pollution, and so on. But there are also common threads that run through chemical exposures of all types. This chapter will provide a general overview of these issues, giving you an idea of the broader impact of toxic chemical exposure. Select from the links below, or get our Toxic Childhood eBook to go much deeper on this issue.

Additional information contained in our eBook

  • Genetic damage & the long-term effects of chemical exposure (eBook)
  • Mood & behavioral changes (eBook)
  • The endocrine disruptors (eBook)
  • Sexual problems & infertility (eBook)
  • Premature puberty in girls (eBook)
  • Obesity & diabetes: Are chemicals making Americans fat? (eBook)
  • Why some people escape injury while others are harmed (eBook)
  • The problem of linking specific chemicals to specific health outcomes (eBook)

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