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Harmful Chemicals in our Environment

Over the past century humans have introduced a large number of chemical substances into the environment. Some are the waste from industrial and agricultural processes. Some have been designed as structural materials and others have been designed to perform various functions such as healing the sick or killing pests and weeds. Obviously some chemicals are useful but many are toxic and their harm to the environment and our health far outweighs their benefit to society. We need to manage the risks better by only using chemicals, which are safe.

Chemicals enter air as emissions and water as effluent. Industrial and motor vehicle emissions of nitrogen and sulphur oxides cause acid rain, which poisons fish and other aquatic organisms in rivers and lakes and affects the ability of soil to support plants. Carbon dioxide causes the greenhouse effect and climate change. Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) cause the destruction of ozone in the stratosphere and create the possibility of serious environmental damage from ultraviolet radiation. Chemical fertilisers and nutrients run-off from farms and gardens cause the build up of toxic algae in rivers, making them uninhabitable to aquatic organisms and unpleasant for humans. Some toxic chemicals find their way from landfill waste sites into our groundwater, rivers and oceans and induce genetic changes that compromise the ability of life to reproduce and survive.

The impact of human activities on the environment is complex and affects a chain of interconnecting ecosystems. The extinction of species all along the chain may mean the loss of useful genetic material or life saving cancer drugs or safer alternatives to the dangerous chemicals in use at the moment.


Organochlorine compounds such as polychlorinated biphenyls or PCBs were developed originally for use in electric equipment as cooling agents and are very dangerous chemicals. During the manufacture and disposal of products containing PCBs, and as a result of accidents, millions of gallons of PCB oil have leaked out. Although their manufacture in the United States was halted in the 1970s and they are being phased out, they are difficult to detect, are nearly indestructible and large quantities remain in existence and they will remain in the environment for a long time. They accumulate in the food chain and significant levels of them have been found in marine species, particularly mammals and sea birds, decades after their production was discontinued. They are carcinogenic and capable of damaging the liver, nervous system and the reproductive system in adults. When PCBs are burned, even more toxic dioxins are formed.


Dioxins, are a class of super-toxic chemicals formed as a by-product of the manufacture, moulding, or burning of organic chemicals and plastics that contain chlorine. They are the most toxic man-made organic chemicals known. They cause serious health effects even at levels as low as a few parts per trillion. Only radioactive waste is more toxic. They are virtually indestructible and are excreted by the body extremely slowly. Dioxins became known when Vietnam War veterans and Vietnamese civilians, exposed to dioxin-contaminated Agent Orange, became ill.

Dioxins enter the body in food and accumulate in body fat. They bind to cell receptors and disrupt hormone functions in the body and they also affect gene functions. Our bodies have no defence against dioxins which may cause a wide range of problems, from cancer to reduced immunity to nervous system disorders to miscarriages and birth deformity. The effects can be very obvious or subtle. Because they change gene functions, they can cause genetic diseases to appear and they can interfere with child development. Attention Deficit Disorder, diabetes, endometriosis, chronic fatigue syndrome, rare nervous and blood disorders have been linked to exposure to dioxins and PCBs.

Over the past 40 years there has been a dramatic increase in the manufacture and use of chlorinated organic chemicals in plastics, insecticides and herbicides. Dioxins have been found in high concentrations near to the sites where these chemicals have been produced and where insecticides and herbicides have been heavily used, such as on farms, orchards, or along electric and railway lines. They have also been a found downstream from paper mills where chlorine chemicals have been used to bleach wood pulp.

In the last few years we have begun to discard our unfashionable household plastic products, together with industrial and medical waste by burning them in incinerators. Dioxins formed during the combustion process have been carried for hundreds of miles on tiny specks of ash and contaminated the countryside. They settle on pastures and crops and get eaten by cows, pigs and chickens. They get into lakes, streams, and ocean and are taken up by fish. They go through the food chain and appear in meat and milk and accumulate in the fat cells of our bodies.


Cadmium occurs naturally in the earth's crust combined with other elements. It is usually formed as a mineral such as cadmium oxide, cadmium chloride, or cadmium sulphate and although these compounds are highly toxic they are less harmful when bound to rocks. They are present in coal and in the soil.

Cadmium is useful because it doesn't corrode easily. It is used in batteries, plastics, pigments and metal coatings. Cadmium gets into the environment through landfills, poor waste disposal methods and leaks at hazardous waste sites. It is produced by mining and other industrial activities. Cadmium particles enter our air when we burn coal for energy and incinerate household waste. The particles can travel far before falling to the ground or water. Each year many tonnes of cadmium are discharged into our seas and oceans. Animals and plants take up cadmium when it is in the environment. If we consume food contaminated with cadmium it can irritate our digestive system and cause vomiting and diarrhoea. If inhaled it can damage our lungs. Even when levels of exposure are low, over time, cadmium accumulates in the body and it can be difficult to get rid of. Accumulated cadmium can cause kidneys and bone disease.

We take cadmium into our body by:

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