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The Environment and Human Health

Author(s): Nancy P. Moreno, PhD

We Live in a Chemical World

Many environmental health problems arise from chemical exposures. Some chemicals have immediate poisonous effects, while others cause problems only after multiple cumulative exposures. In addition to affecting the health of individuals, chemicals can impact entire populations of humans and other organisms by causing changes to the land (e.g., increased soil salinity due to irrigation), water (e.g., increased water temperature near nuclear power plants), and/or air (e.g., climate change brought on by increases in greenhouse gas emissions). These changes impact food webs and ecosystems deeply. For instance, they may cause alterations in the range of some disease-causing animals, thereby leading to the spread of diseases into new regions of the world. 

Radiation and certain small molecules alter the DNA sequence within cells. Changes caused by these agents, called mutagens, can lead to cancers and other genetic disorders. 

Some chemicals in the environment, particularly pesticides, have been linked to the development of Parkinson’s disease, a progressive brain disorder.

Other chemical substances, known as endocrine disruptors or environmental estrogens, affect hormone balance and/or interfere with normal functioning of hormones within the body. Most can bind to hormone-specific receptors on the cells of target organs within the body. Endocrine disruptors include man-made chemicals, such as pesticides and plasticizers; natural chemicals found in plants (phytoestrogens); pharmaceuticals; and hormones excreted in animal or human waste.


Funded by the following grant(s)