Posted: 28 Nov 2022 By:  Reading time: minutes remaining

The Cancer Effects Of Pollution On Humans

The effects of pollution on humans may be severe. Several toxins in the air can cause cancer.

In this blog post, you will learn about toxins in the air and their effect on your health. Discover what in the air can cause cancer and how to avoid them.

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The information is presented for educational purposes only and is not intended to diagnose, prescribe treat or cure cancer.This information is not intended as medical advice, please refer to a qualified healthcare professional.

The Effects Of Pollution On Humans And How They Make Us Sick

Since the industrial revolution, humans have inhaled more pollution. Our ancestors could breathe fresh air and didn't have to worry about toxins in the air.

But when more people moved to cities and worked at factories, they breathed air pollution. More people could afford cars which further worsened the condition.

There are two ways we measure air pollution. One way is Total volatile organic compounds(TVOC). The other one is particulate matter(PM2.5). I will first explain what TVOCs is and then PM2.5.

Air pollution in a city during sunset and the effects of pollution on humans

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) become gases from solids or liquids

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) become gases from solids or liquids. VOCs are volatile because they evaporate at room temperature.

There are so many VOCs in the air it's impossible to track them all. So we measure them with TVOC. It estimates the amount of VOCs in a given space.

An air quality monitor that can detect volatile organic compounds. You will see your TVOC readings as a single measure in parts per billion (ppb) or milligrams per cubic meter (mg/m3). 

TVOC Categories

TVOC (ug/m3)

Excellent

<250

Good

250-500

Moderate

500-1000

Unhealthy

1000-3000

VOCs evaporate under average indoor temperature and pressure. The European Union uses the boiling point when it defines VOCs.

VOCs are sometimes categorized by how easily they emit gases. For example, the World Health Organization (WHO) classifies indoor organic pollutants as:

  • Very volatile organic compounds (VOCs)
  • Volatile organic compounds (VOCs)
  • Semi-volatile organic compounds (SVOCs)

Very volatile organic compounds are so unstable that they are difficult to measure. They are gases in the atmosphere rather than materials on surfaces. The lower the boiling point, the easier the chemical emits into the air.

The least volatile compounds found in the air can be solids or liquids. Some exist on surfaces, including dust, furnishings, and building materials.

Let's look at some common sources of VOCs.

Common Sources Of Volatile Organic Compounds(VOC)

Many products produce VOCs through off-gassing, such as when you renovate a home. Until the off-gassing stops, your indoor environment releases toxic VOCs. 

Painter painting the wall yellow

VOCs can come from a vast collection of sources, such as paint

VOCs emit gases from everyday products. Many VOCs are harmful over the long term. VOCs, come from a vast collection of sources. Cities are the largest contributor to VOCs from vehicle emissions. Pollution can also come from industries and waste. 

The majority of indoor VOCs come from everyday household and office staples, including:

  • Paints and solvents
  • Pesticides
  • Glue
  • Carpets
  • Electronic devices
  • Printing inks
  • Feedstock
  • Oil and gas
  • Ethanol
  • White spirits
  • Benzene
  • Styrene
  • Toluene
  • Cleaners and disinfectants
  • Air fresheners
  • New furniture
  • Building materials
  • Plywood
  • Wood preservatives
  • Home firewood burning
  • Propane
  • Butane
  • Acetone
  • Formaldehyde
  • Tetrachloroethylene
  • Xylene

Vehicle fuel combustion is a significant source of VOCs. But toxic VOCs can also come through the off-gassing chemicals inside car interiors.

Air fresheners in homes can also emit toxic VOCs.

Air Fresheners In Your Home Are Toxic

Three of four US homes use an air freshener. Droplets vaporize and diffuse into the air. Air fresheners can mask or add a new, pleasant odor to the home. The pleasant scent is often due to harmful substances dispersed into the air.

Car air fresheners and home air fresheners emit VOCs. Environmental Health Perspectives published a paper on VOCs in 2011. The article found that over 100 VOCs came from scented consumer products.

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) tested a variety of air fresheners. Researchers looked for emissions of VOCs and phthalates. One popular product contained more than 20 VOCs. 

Air freshener in front of a blue background

The pleasant scent from air fresheners is often due to harmful substances dispersed into the air

Many products were hazardous. Twelve out of the 14 air fresheners NRDC tested also contained phthalates. They also discovered it in products advertised as "all-natural" or "unscented." 

When I looked at an air freshener, the label said it was flammable and had many poisonous chemicals. My air filter immediately reacted when I sprayed it in front of it.

Scented candles emit toxic VOCs. The effect also happens when you don't light them. Scented candles are strong indoor sources of VOC emissions in either state.

VOCs in the air can affect our health. Let's look at some side effects of these chemicals.

Health Risks Of VOCs

VOCs have varying levels of toxicity. Indoor concentrations of VOCs are 2-5 times higher than outdoors. They increase indoors due to inadequate ventilation, higher temperatures, or humidity. Outdoor VOC levels are also a concern. 

Short-term side effects of VOCs include:

  • Irritated eyes, nose, throat
  • Breathing problems
  • Allergies and asthma
  • Kidney damage
  • Dizziness
  • Headaches
  • Sick building sickness
  • Cancer
  • Fatigue

There is a term called building syndrome, or SBS. It refers to when people in a building get sick. This condition comes from indoor TVOC levels. Cases can be mild or severe.

Woman having problem breathing

VOCs can cause affect your health, such as breathing problems

I remember one time when a painter painted my bedroom. The first night after he finished, I had difficulty breathing. Toxic chemicals oozed off the paint and made it hard to sleep. 

Some VOCs are exceptionally harmful, like formaldehyde and benzene. They can cause cancer. These chemicals exist in glues, paints, cigarettes, vehicle emissions, and devices. 

Other volatile organic compounds are far less harmful and come from natural sources. For example, plants use their VOCs to interact with their environments. These gases are often harmless to humans.

Pesticides and herbicides have chemicals that are harmful to people.

Monsanto's Herbicide Roundup Can Cause Cancer

Pesticides and herbicides keep bugs off the crop. One example is Roundup from the former company Monsanto, now Bayer. The company's GMO crops are resistant to its herbicide Roundup

It is poisonous to everyone except their GMO crops. The weed killer sells in more than 160 countries, including the US. Monsanto said studies established that Roundup's active ingredient, glyphosate, is safe.

The World Health Organization classified it as a "probable human carcinogen". Lawsuits against Monsanto followed.

Needle manipulating the DNA of an apple

GMO weed killer Roundup can cause cancer

Roundup caused cancer in a man from California. A San Francisco jury awarded the man $289 million. They determined that Roundup caused his non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. A judge later reduced the award to $78 million.

Edwin Hardeman used Roundup to treat poison oak overgrowth and weeds in the 1980s. He continued using them through 2012, according to his attorneys. Edwin got non-Hodgkin's lymphoma in 2015.

Glyphosate in Roundup gets in the body when we eat GMO crops. Farmers spraying the chemical also absorb it and increase their cancer risk.

Everyday products in our bathrooms can also be toxic to us.

Bathroom Products Can Be Harmful To Us

Products in our bathroom can contain several chemicals that make us sick. Unilever recalled over 1.5 million products that had elevated levels of benzene. It's a cancer-causing substance. Benzene may lead to leukemia and other blood disorders.

The affected goods were aerosols made before October 2021. Some brands were Dove, Nexxus, Suave, TRESemmé, and TIGI (Rockaholic and Bed Head).

Woman using hair spray

Products in our bathroom can contain several chemicals that make us sick

Unilever identified the propellant in the spray as the culprit. Butane discharges the contents of the products. If not refined enough, the resulting gas could contain benzene.

A 12-year-old boy collapsed and died after using copious amounts of deodorant in a cramped bathroom. Daniel Hurley's heart began to beat irregularly.

His father, Robert, found him collapsed in the bathroom at the family home. Mr. Hurley tried to revive Daniel. But he died at the hospital five days later from abnormal heart rhythms.

We can also find toxic VOCs in our homes when we try to kill moths.

Mothballs Contain Toxic Chemicals That Can Affect Our Health

Finding small holes in your clothes from moths can be irritating. Moths and butterflies are insects from the order called Lepidoptera, meaning "scaly-winged."

There are over 2,500 species of moth but fewer than 70 butterflies. Moths and butterflies share the same basic biology. They have far more similarities than differences. 

Clothes moths can be an annoyance when their larvae start eating your clothes. They love natural fibers like wool, cotton, and linen. If you pull out a cotton t-shirt or woolen jumper and find little holes, you may have clothes moths. 

Moth

Clothes moths can be an annoyance when their larvae start eating your clothes

There are two different types of mothballs used to combat the moths. One uses naphthalene and the other paradichlorobenzene. The idea with both chemicals is to kill moths and moth larvae with the fumes.

Both naphthalene and paradichlorobenzene go from a solid form to a gas. The gas is toxic to the moths. These chemicals stay inside a sealed container so the fumes can build up and kill the moths.

In a sealed atmosphere like this, the fumes do not harm people. The main threat happens when you open the containers or wear the clothes.

Naphthalene in mothballs can cause problems with red blood cells.

Naphthalene In Mothballs Can Lead To Problems With Red Blood Cells

Naphthalene exposure through inhalation and ingestion can cause hemolytic anemia. Hemolytic anemia is a blood condition. It occurs when the body can't replace red blood cells fast enough. 

Naphthalene may also damage the liver and do neurological damage. Cataracts are another side effect of naphthalene. This condition clouds the lens of the eye and affects your vision. 

Red blood cells

Naphthalene in moth balls can cause issues with red blood cells

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has a database of environmental toxins. EPA classified naphthalene as a Group C possible human carcinogen.

Dry cleaners use dangerous chemical solvents that can stick to clothing. Most cleaners use perchloroethylene, also known as tetrachloroethylene, PCE, or perc

Low levels of inhaled perc cause respiratory issues, headache, dizziness, and eye problems.

Another source of toxins in the air is cigarettes.

Smoking Causes 13 Types Of Cancer

Not surprising tobacco smoke is toxic to humans. Cigarettes increase our risk of 13 types of cancers. Some examples include mouth, throat, larynx, and esophagus cancer. 

Smokers have a much higher risk of lung cancer than non-smokers. They also have higher rates of pancreatic cancer. Tobacco is the leading cause of preventable illness and death in the United States. 

It causes many different cancers as well as chronic lung diseases. Cigarettes are behind heart disease, pregnancy-related problems, and other serious health issues. 

One of the ingredients in tobacco is a mood-altering drug called nicotine. Nicotine reaches your brain in mere seconds and makes you feel more energized.

But as that effect wears off, you feel tired and crave more. Nicotine is addictive, which is why people find smoking so difficult to quit.

Woman smoking

igarettes increase our risk of 13 types of cancers

Cigarettes damage your entire cardiovascular system. Nicotine causes blood vessels to tighten, which restricts the flow of blood. Smoking also raises blood pressure, weakens blood vessel walls, and increases blood clots. 

Tobacco smoke contains many chemicals that are harmful to both smokers and non-smokers. Breathing, even a little tobacco smoke, can be dangerous. If you're a smoker, you should quit. You will save not only yourself but also others from the toxic fumes of tobacco.

Cigarettes also affect your insulin, making it more likely to develop insulin resistance. That puts you at increased risk of type 2 diabetes.

Carbon monoxide from inhaled cigarette smoke also contributes to a lack of oxygen. Cancer cells ferment glucose instead of oxygen. So by smoking, you reduce oxygen to the cells even more and worsen your condition.

Carbon monoxide does not just come from cigarettes. You can also find it in furnaces and water heaters. The following stories will reveal what happens if carbon monoxide flows freely.

Carbon Monoxide In Your Furnace And Water Heater Can Kill You

Carbon monoxide, or CO, is an odorless, colorless gas that can kill you. You can find it in fumes from cars, stoves, lanterns, grills, fireplaces, gas ranges, or furnaces. CO can build up indoors and poison people and animals who breathe it. 

The most common symptoms of CO poisoning are: 

  • Headaches
  • Weakness
  • Vomiting
  • Confusion
  • Dizziness
  • Upset stomach
  • Chest pain

CO symptoms feel "flu-like." Kathi Wilson battled a mysterious illness that left her walking like an old lady. Even her doctor couldn't figure out what was making her so sick. 

Man and woman escaping a smoke-filled building

Carbon monoxide, or CO, is an odorless, colorless gas that can kill you

Kathi tried many medications and did all sorts of tests. It was the contractors who finally figured out what was making her sick. She hired them to remodel her bathroom. Someone had improperly hooked up the furnace and water heater in Kathy's home.

Her heater leaked small amounts of carbon monoxide. The gas filled her house and led to her problems. When the contractor fixed the problem, Kathy's symptoms went away. 

Luckily Kathy's story ended well. But another carbon monoxide incident didn't have a happy ending. A carbon monoxide leak at a hotel pool party took the life of a 13-year-old boy. In this case, a broken pool heater led to this tragic event. 

Now that I talked about VOCs let's learn more about particulate matter and its effect on your health.

What Is Particulate Matter(PM2.5 And PM10)?

Another way we can measure air pollution is particulate matter(PM). PM is substances in the air with solid forms. Some examples include smoke, dust, and pollen. We can see and often touch them. Others are so small that you can only see them using an electron microscope.

There are two major categories of particle pollution, PM10, and PM2.5. PM10 is inhalable particles with diameters that are about 10 micrometers and smaller. PM2.5 is fine particles with diameters that are 2.5 micrometers and smaller.

The average human hair is about 70 micrometers in diameter. Hair is about 30 times larger than fine PM2.5 particles. PM particles come in many sizes and shapes, and there can be hundreds of different chemicals.

PM2.5 and PM10 particles compared to hair

Comparison of PM2.5 and PM10 particles compared to human hair

You can find them at construction sites, unpaved roads, fields, smokestacks, or fires. Most particles form in the atmosphere as a result of complex reactions of chemicals. Some are pollutants emitted from power plants, industries, and cars.

PM contains microscopic solids or liquid droplets. They are so small that you inhale them and cause serious health problems. Some particles less than 10 micrometers in diameter can get deep into your lungs.

Others may even get into your bloodstream. Particles less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter pose the greatest health risk.

Fine particles can come from various sources. They include:

  • Power plants
  • Airplanes
  • Forest fires
  • Agricultural burning
  • Motor vehicles
  • Wood burning
  • Volcanic eruptions
  • Dust

Particle matter can affect our health if left unchecked.

PM Pollution Can Cause Respiratory Problems

Some PMs emit into the air, and others form when gases and particles interact. For example, sulfur dioxide gas emitted from power plants reacts with oxygen. Water droplets in the air then form sulfuric acid as a secondary particle.

Since they are so small and light, fine particles stay longer in the air than heavier particles. Humans and animals can then inhale them. PM2.5 particles can bypass the nose and throat and penetrate deep into the lungs. Some may even enter the circulatory system.

Even if some of the PM2.5 chemicals don't cause cancer, they can still be toxic. Cooking fumes can be harmful in a room with poor ventilation.

I remember one time when I needed to use the oven. The person before me had burnt cooking oil on the bottom. When I wanted to bake bread, the whole kitchen was smoke-filled. 

Car smog during heavy traffic

PM2.5 is one of the major pollutants monitored by health authorities worldwide

My eyes became watery, and I was coughing and couldn't stay too long in the kitchen. I had to open a window to ventilate the room. After I had used the oven and switched it off, I still had to wait before returning. 

PM2.5 is one of the major pollutants monitored by health authorities worldwide. They measure it with the Air Quality Index (AQI).

AQI Category

PM2.5(μg/m3, 24-hour average

Good

0.0 – 12.0

Moderate

12.1 – 35.4

Unhealthy for
Sensitive Groups

35.5 – 55.4

Unhealthy

55.5 – 150.4

Very Unhealthy

150.5 250.4

Hazardous

250.5 500

On a clear and non-hazy day, the PM2.5 concentration can be as low as 5 μg/m3 or below. The 24-hour concentration of PM2.5 is unhealthy when it rises above 35.4 μg/m3.

Damage caused by air pollutants depends on the concentration and duration of exposure. The longer you inhale PM2.5, the higher the risk of developing adverse effects.

Pollen is another type of particle matter that can cause breathing problems.

What Is Pollen?

Pollen is essential for the sexual reproduction of plants. Each pollen grain contains male gametes needed for fertilization. The male part of flowering plants is the stamen

Each pollen grain is a single cell containing two male gametes. Once mature, the anther splits open and releases pollen. 

White flower with pollen

Pollen may cause hay fever or seasonal allergic rhinitis

Pollen may cause hay fever or seasonal allergic rhinitis. In vulnerable individuals, the immune system will recognize pollen as harmful. They may have itchy, irritated eyes, sinus congestion, and a runny nose. 

You may also experience similar side effects from dust.

Where Does Dust Come From?

Dust is everywhere in our homes, workplaces, and environment. It can pile on the surface of your furniture. Dust can cause allergies and health problems. 

It consists of tiny particles of dry solid matter. Dust begins as airborne particles that land on surfaces. It can start anywhere. There are three main categories of dust: environmental, household, and industrial dust. 

House dust under high magnification

House dust under high magnification, picture by NIAID

Household dust breaks out from kitchen materials, chemicals, or ingredients. Indoor dust comes from things found within your home, such as:

  • Animal hair
  • Textile fibers
  • Human skin cells
  • Food particles
  • Pollen
  • Pet dander
  • Paper fibers
  • Human hair
  • Soil particles
  • Exhaust or tire particles

Most homes contain a combination of indoor and outdoor dust. Whenever you open a window or door, you allow dust particles to come in.

Industrial dust comes during the manufacturing or production process. For example, cutting, drilling, grinding, or sawing generates dust.

Welding and plasma cutting also produce tiny particles, fumes, and smoke. Industrial dust may contain metals and chemicals that can be harmful if inhaled. Some types of dust cause fires.

If you have dust in your home, try to get rid of it with these tips.

Ways To Reduce Dust In Your Home

Having too much dust in your house can be a health concern. The dust becomes the perfect breeding ground for insects and allergens. Dust mites are tiny microscopic beings that feed on this dust. They can live within your home without you even knowing it.

Too much dust may cause allergic reactions in some pets or humans. Signs that you may be allergic to dust in the house include:

  • Sneezes
  • Itchy, red, or teary eyes
  • Coughing
  • Runny nose
  • Skin irritation

You can do a few things to reduce dust in the home. Dusting and vacuuming your home at least once per week will help keep dust from building up.

Woman cleaning the home from dust

Dusting and vacuuming your home at least once per week will help keep dust from building up

Use a vacuum cleaner with a HEPA filter. Cleaning your bedding at least once a week will help to keep dust from multiplying. If you don't have the time to vacuum, use a robot vacuum. 

When you clean, be sure to move from top to bottom. Start with fans, then upper cabinets, tables, lower cabinets, and floors. A damp cloth will help you to capture dust when you're cleaning. If you use a dry cloth, it may only spread the dust.

Switching on an air purifier reduces dust in your home even more. Use an air filter and replace the filter as needed. 

Some toxins in the air are so poisonous that they can cause cancer.

Toxins In The Air That Can Cause Cancer

Pollutants in the environment can, in some cases, lead to cancer. The European Environment Agency(EEA) investigated the links between cancer and the environment. Its report estimated that air pollution was behind around 10% of European cancer cases.

Some cancer cases have an underlying environmental cause. Researchers from Hong Kong and the UK studied long-term exposure to fine particulate matter.

Factory air pollution

Pollutants in the environment can, in some cases, lead to cancer

The study enrolled 66,280 Hong Kong residents 65 or older. Researchers recruited them between 1998 and 2001. The investigators followed the study subjects until 2011. They looked at the annual concentrations of PM2.5 in their homes. 

For every ten micrograms per cubic meter (µg/m3) of increased exposure to PM2.5, the risk of dying from cancer rose by 22%. The death rate for cancers of the upper digestive tract was 42% higher.

Accessory digestive organs include the liver, bile ducts, gall bladder, and pancreas. In these organs, the mortality risk was 35% higher. For breast cancer, the death risk was 80% higher and 36% for lung cancer.

You can find many cancer-causing substances in the air in numerous things in our homes.

Sources Of Carcinogens In The Air

Pollution might spark defects in DNA repair function or inflammation that triggers cancers. Worldwide, people spend their time in various places. They go to homes, workplaces, public spaces, vehicles, and outdoors. 

Fuels for heating, cooking, and power generate some pollution. Indoor carcinogens can also come from tobacco smoke, building materials, and furnishings. 

Carcinogens in the air list

Several pollutants in the air can cause cancer, according to IARC

Outdoor air pollution is a major contributor to diseases worldwide. About 100 000 worldwide lung cancer deaths annually are because of air pollution. Outdoor air pollution may also lead to poorer cancer survival. 

Nj Health made a list of almost 500 substances that can cause cancer. The most talked about carcinogens on that list are asbestos, radon, formaldehyde, and benzene.

Let's begin by learning more about formaldehyde and how to avoid it.

Formaldehyde In Building Materials Can Cause Cancer

Formaldehyde is a colorless, strong-smelling chemical gas at room temperature. It appears naturally in our environment, foods, and even our bodies.

But formaldehyde is also a popular chemical in some industries. Manufacturers use it to make building materials and many household products. Some examples include: 

  • Pressed-wood products, such as particleboard, plywood, and fiberboard
  • Glues and adhesives
  • Permanent-press fabrics
  • Paper product coatings
  • Certain insulation materials

When you dissolve formaldehyde dissolved in water, it becomes formalin. It's a common industrial disinfectant and preservative in funeral homes. 

Stack of wood noards

Things like particleboards may contain formaldehyde

Formaldehyde is also a preservative in antiseptics, medicines, and cosmetics. Sometimes formaldehyde is not an ingredient in a product. But other substances can release formaldehyde. You can find them in cosmetics, soaps, shampoos, lotions, and sunscreens. 

Professional keratin hair smoothing treatments can contain formaldehyde or formaldehyde-releasing chemicals. Cleaning products can also have it.

There are several ways formaldehyde can get inside our bodies.

How We Can Absorb Formaldehyde In Our Bodies

Humans and living organisms' metabolic processes make small amounts of formaldehyde. Formaldehyde can get inside the body when you inhale it. Or when you absorb it through the skin and drink liquids containing formaldehyde.

Enzymes in the body break down formaldehyde into formate (formic acid). Formic acid can further break it down into carbon dioxide. The cell lining, the mouth, nose, throat, and airways limit how much you absorb into the blood.

Formaldehyde is often present at low levels, both indoors and outdoors. Materials containing formaldehyde can release it as a gas or vapor into the air. Formaldehyde is also component of tobacco smoke.

Smog from a white car

Automobile exhaust is a significant source of formaldehyde in outdoor air

Automobile exhaust is a significant source of formaldehyde in outdoor air. Pressed wood products containing formaldehyde resins are often a source of formaldehyde in homes.

Unvented gas stoves, wood-burning stoves, and kerosene heaters can raise formaldehyde levels indoors.

During the 1970s, many homes used urea-formaldehyde foam insulation (UFFI). But few homes use it. Old houses don't have high formaldehyde levels now.

Formaldehyde can cause several types of cancers. Find out more next.

Formaldehyde Can Lead To Nasal Sinus Cancer And Leukemia

Formaldehyde at work may cause nasal sinus cancer. Professionals who use formaldehyde have an increased risk of leukemia, especially myeloid leukemia

Industrial workers exposed to formaldehyde also have an increased cancer risk. But not all studies show an increased risk.

cancer cells disintegrating

IARC said that formaldehyde is a class one carcinogen

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) is part of the World Health Organization (WHO). One of its primary goals is to identify the causes of cancer. 

IARC concluded that formaldehyde is carcinogenic to humans based on enough evidence. It can cause nasopharyngeal cancer and leukemia. EPA also classified formaldehyde as a probable human carcinogen. 

Asbestos is another substance that can cause cancer.

Fibers In Asbestos Can Cause Lung Cancer

Asbestos is a group of minerals that occur as fibers. You can find these fibers in soil and rocks in many parts of the world. They consist of silicon and oxygen, but they also contain other elements. There are two main types of asbestos.

One type is chrysotile asbestos, also known as white asbestos. It is the most common type in industrial applications. Chrysotile asbestos fibers wrap around themselves in a spiral. 

Asbestos (tremolite) silky fibres on muscovite from Bernera, Outer Hebrides

Asbestos (tremolite) silky fibres on muscovite from Bernera, Outer Hebrides

Amphibole asbestos fibers are straight and needle-like. There are several types of amphibole fibers, including: 

  • Amosite (brown asbestos)
  • Tremolite
  • Anthophyllite
  • Crocidolite (blue asbestos)
  • Actinolite

Asbestos fibers are strong and resistant to heat and many chemicals. They also don't conduct electricity. As a result, asbestos has been an insulating material since ancient times. Before you could find it in:

  • Insulate factories
  • Homes
  • Car brakes
  • Ceilings
  • Cement
  • Schools
  • Ships
  • Clutch parts
  • Floor tiles
  • Textiles

In the first half of the 20th century, evidence showed that asbestos fibers caused lung cancer. Laws later banned the use of asbestos in construction materials. 

But you can still find it in old buildings.

Old Buildings Contain Toxic Asbestos

There has been a dramatic decrease in asbestos use in the United States since the mid-1970s. As a result, asbestos exposure has dropped substantially. But some products, older buildings, water pipes, and other settings still use it. 

The European Union banned asbestos in 2005. But the ban did not require the removal of any asbestos that was already in place. Still, heavy asbestos use continues in some countries.

There are several ways people can absorb asbestos. Most exposures come from inhaling asbestos fibers in the air. They can occur during the mining and processing of asbestos.

Old asbestos iron ad

Advert for Asbestos iron, 1890s

You can swallow asbestos fibers from liquids flowing through cement pipes. Exposure can also come from products containing it or when installing asbestos insulation.

Asbestos materials begin to break down if you live in an old building. The result is asbestos in the lung. In any of these situations, asbestos fibers tend to create dust made of tiny particles that can float in the air.

I remember one time when I helped my friends remove some stuff from their shed. We found some asbestos tiles and had to be careful when we gave them to the recycling center.

Another thing you should look out for in the air is radon.

Rocks And Soils Can Release Harmful Radon

Radon is a colorless, odorless, and radioactive gas. It forms naturally from the breakdown of radioactive elements such as uranium. You can find radon in different amounts in soils and rocks worldwide.

Radon gas in the ground and rock can move into the air and underground water. This gas is present outdoors and indoors. There are often low radon levels in outdoor air and drinking water from rivers and lakes. 

Map of the USA showing radon levels

Prediction of homes exceeding the EPA's recommended action level of 4 pCi/L

For most people, radon exposure comes from being indoors. Some examples include homes, offices, schools, and other buildings. The radon levels in homes and other buildings depend on the rocks and soils in the area. Therefore radon levels differ in various parts of the United States. 

Radon gas can enter buildings through cracks in floors, walls, and construction joints. Or gaps in foundations around pipes, wires, or pumps.

Radon levels are often highest in the basement. Thus, people who spend more time in basement rooms at home or work have a greater radon risk. 

Too much exposure to radon can increase your risk of lung cancer.

Radon From The Environment Can Cause Lung Cancer

Small amounts of radon can also come from the water supply and go into the air. Water from deep, underground rock wells may have higher radon levels.

Surface water from lakes or rivers often has minuscule radon levels. For most people, water does not contribute much to radon exposure.

People can also inhale radon from some building materials that have radon substances. Almost any building material made from natural substances can give off radon. In most cases, these levels are tiny.

Workers in a mine

People working in underground mines can get exposed to radon

Exposure to radon for a long time can lead to lung cancer. Radon gas in the air breaks down into tiny radioactive elements called radon progeny. They can lodge in the lining of the lungs, where they can give off radiation. This radiation can damage lung cells and lead to lung cancer.

Radon might also cause adult and childhood leukemia. But the evidence from studies has not been as strong as it is for lung cancer. 

Several studies found that exposure to radon increases lung cancer, such as:

  • People working in underground mines
  • Homes of people with lung cancer
  • Deaths in areas with differing levels of radon exposure

The lung risk of lung cancer from radon is higher in people who smoke or used to smoke.

Benzene is another toxic chemical that can cause cancer.

Benzene, A Common Chemical In The US, Can Cause Cancer

Benzene is a colorless, flammable liquid with a sweet odor. It evaporates quickly when exposed to air. Benzene comes from natural processes, such as volcanoes and forest fires. But most exposure comes from human activities.

Benzene is one of the 20 most used chemicals in the United States. Manufacturers often use it to make other chemicals, such as:  

  • Plastics
  • Rubbers
  • Detergents
  • Pesticides
  • Lubricants
  • Dyes
  • Drugs

In the past, it was also used as an industrial solvent to dissolve or extract other substances. Benzene is also a natural part of crude oil and gasoline. 

The primary way people inhale it is through air containing benzene. We can also absorb it through the skin while contacting a source such as gasoline. 

Oil refinery

People can inhale benzene from gasoline fumes and emissions from oil refineries

The highest exposures have been in the workplace. But it decreased due to federal and state regulations. 

Jobs that make or use benzene may absorb this chemical more than others. These industries or jobs include:

  • Rubber industry
  • Chemical plants
  • Lubricant production
  • Drug creators
  • Pesticide manufacturers
  • Printer manufacturers
  • Gas stations
  • Firefighters
  • Oil refineries
  • Shoe manufacturers
  • Gasoline industries
  • Dyes industry
  • Detergent production
  • Steel production
  • Labs

People can inhale benzene from gasoline fumes and emissions from some factories. Wastewater from some industries can also increase it. 

Benzene is common in the air of both urban and rural areas, but the levels are often low. Enclosed spaces with gasoline, glues, solvents, paints, and art supplies increase the risk. Other prominent sources are heavy traffic, gas stations, and areas near industries. 

Benzene can cause cancer, based on evidence from studies in both people and lab animals. It may induce leukemia and other cancers of blood cells. Acute myeloid leukemia is higher in workers exposed to high levels of benzene. 

Summary

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) become gases from solids or liquids.

VOCs emit gases from everyday products.

The pleasant scent from air fresheners is often due to harmful substances dispersed into the air.

VOCs have varying levels of toxicity.

Pesticides and herbicides have chemicals that are harmful to people.

Products in our bathroom can contain several chemicals that make us sick.

Naphthalene in mothballs can cause problems with red blood cells.

Cigarettes increase our risk of 13 types of cancers.

Carbon monoxide is an odorless, colorless gas that can kill you.

Particulate matter(PM) is substances in the air with solid forms.

PM2.5 is one of the major pollutants monitored by health authorities worldwide.

Pollen may cause hay fever or seasonal allergic rhinitis.

Dust can cause allergies and health problems.

Dusting and vacuuming your home at least once per week will help keep dust from building up.

Pollutants in the environment can lead to cancer.

Formaldehyde is a colorless, strong-smelling chemical gas at room temperature.

Studies show that formaldehyde at work is a probable link to nasal sinus cancer.

Asbestos is a group of minerals that occur as fibers.

In the first half of the 20th century, evidence showed that asbestos fibers caused lung cancer.

Radon is a colorless, odorless, and radioactive gas.

Exposure to radon for a long time can lead to lung cancer.

Benzene is a colorless, flammable liquid with a sweet odor.

Benzene can cause cancer, based on evidence from studies in both people and lab animals.


How To Reduce Toxins In The Air

1. Control the source of air pollutants

2. Improve your ventilation

3. Filtrate the air

4. Use toxic chemicals outside

5. Clean your home with natural cleaning products

6. Measure toxins in the air

7. Buy a carbon monoxide alarm

Action Steps

Today you learned about effects of pollution on humans.
There are several ways you can improve indoor air quality in your home. EPA recommends that you control the source, ventilation, and filtration. 

The best way to enhance the indoor air quality is to eliminate the source. Do you have asbestos in your home or a heater that leaks toxic gases? Or do you use cleaning products or paint containing many toxins? If so, remove these sources to improve your air quality.

Do hobbies such as welding, soldering, sanding, or painting outside. Also, avoid cleaning your home with toxic chemicals. Instead, use non-toxic ways to clean your house.

We have a guide on how to clean your home without using harmful chemicals. Learn how to make your natural aerosols and a lot more. 

Discover How To Clean Your Home Without Breathing In Toxins

Download this free e-book to learn how to clean your home without using toxic chemicals.


Discover natural ways to clean you kitchen, bathroom, windows, and floors. 


Also find out how to create non-toxic air fresheners.


By cleaning your home, you can improve your air quality. Removing dust and other particles can reduce allergies and make breathing easier.

 There are several ways to reduce your VOC exposure, such as:

  • Using air-tight containers to store toxic products
  • Keeping chemicals with VOCs in them away from people in a garage or shed, if possible
  • Disposing of unused chemicals through your community's household hazardous waste collection system
  • Not usingsaerosol consumer products
  • Making natural cleaning products
  • Buying water-based paints rather than solvent-based
  • Renovating your home when it is unoccupied

You can also better your indoor air quality by letting in outdoor air. Most homes have heating and cooling systems. But they often don't bring fresh air into the house. Opening windows and doors improves air quality or running a window air conditioner. 

There are many types of air cleaners on the market. They can range from inexpensive air filters to expensive whole-house systems.  

Air filters' effectiveness depends on how well they absorb toxic indoor air. They need to both take in harmful pollutants and release clean air.

Table-top air cleaners may not remove enough pollutants. Use an air filter with an activated carbon layer that captures ultra-fine particles as small as 0.1μm. It can catch smoke, fumes, cooking odor, and other TVOCs. 

The air filter should also have a HEPA filter. A HEPA filter catches tiny particles such as pollen, mold, and pet dander. The preliminary filter captures large particles such as dust, lint, fur, and hair.

Air filters are not a single solution to indoor air quality problems. But they can help improve ventilation. I have noticed that my air filter has made my indoor air better. 

Air cleaning alone cannot remove all pollutants found indoors. EPA does not recommend using air cleaners to reduce radon levels. Houseplants may help absorb some indoor toxins. But they can't remove significant quantities of pollutants in homes and offices.

You can buy a device to measure the air quality in your house. After you have detected any pollutants, lower them by using the tips above.

You can find carcinogenic chemicals on nj.gov Are you exposed to any of these chemicals in your home? If so, make sure to eliminate them.

Buy a carbon monoxide alarm and ensure your heater doesn't leak any carbon monoxide. 

If you're able, move to a place with less air pollution. If not, avoid going out if there is too much car smog. You can look at the air quality of different cities in the United States here. Or other cities worldwide here.

Resources:


About the author 

Simon Persson

Simon Persson is a holistic cancer blogger passionate about natural health remedies. When he is not blogging, he enjoys nature, cooking, sports, and learning about the latest gadgets on the market.

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