Most Harmful Toxins

Most Harmful Environmental Toxins

Heavy metals are the oldest toxins known to humans. Environmental exposure to aluminum, lead, mercury, cadmium, and manganese cause serious health problems by interaction with biological systems. We are exposed to environmental toxins every day. Below is a list of common environmental toxins, including where they are found and their harmful effects.

Heavy Metals

Found in drinking water, fish, vaccines, pesticides, preserved wood, antiperspirant, building materials, dental amalgams, chlorine plants
Can cause cancer, neurological disorders, Alzheimer's disease, fatigue, nausea, abnormal heart rhythm, and damage to blood vessels

PCBs (Polychlorinated biphenyls)

Found in farm-raised salmon
Can cause cancer, impaired fetal brain development


Found in animal fats
Can cause cancer, reproductive disorders, chloracne, skin rashes, and skin discoloration


Found in bug sprays, commercially raised meats, and other foods
Can cause cancer, Parkinson's disease, miscarriage, nerve damage, and birth defects


Found in plastic wrap, plastic bottles, and other plastic food containers
Can cause endocrine system damage

VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds)

Found in drinking water, paint, deodorants, cosmetics, and dry cleaned clothing
Can cause cancer, eye irritation, headaches, and memory impairment


Found in flooring insulation, ceilings, water pipes, and heating ducts from the 1950s to 1970s
Can cause cancer, scarring of the lung tissue, mesothelioma


Found in household cleaners and drinking water
Can cause sore throat, coughing, eye irritation, rapid breathing, narrowing of the bronchi, wheezing, blue coloring of the skin, pain in the lung region, and lung collapse


Found in air, drinking water, and food
Can cause cancer, reproductive damage, birth defects, dizziness, fatigue and headaches

Inorganic chemicals and toxic metals:


According to the EPA, more than 800 U.S. cities have water that exceeds the EPA's "action level" for lead. Over half of U.S. cities still use lead-lined pipes or copper pipes with lead soldering, which are the primary sources of lead in drinking water. Even at low intake levels, lead can cause fetal damage and delayed neurological and physical development in children, and high blood pressure, heart attacks, kidney damage, reproductive dysfunction and strokes in adults.


Are a special class of synthetic organic chemicals which include solvents like benzene, carbon tetrachloride, trichloroethylene, p-dichlorobenzene, and the building block of PVC plastic, vinyl chloride. Many VOCs are known or suspected carcinogens and can also affect the nervous system. VOCs evaporate readily, and thus can be inhaled while you shower.


A well-known poison, is also classified as a known human carcinogen by the EPA. It can cross the placenta and accumulate in the body. Arsenic enters the water supply from smelting of many ores, such as copper and iron, and through its use as a wood preservative. Three hundred thousand people in the U.S. may be drinking water containing higher than the EPA's maximum allowable limit of 50 parts per billion of arsenic. High levels of intake can lead to abnormal fetal development and cardiovascular disease. The Northwest and Southwest have the lowest concentrations of arsenic in water.


Like lead, can be leached out of pipes, especially by soft, acidic water. Used for electroplating, in paint and pigments, and in the manufacture of PVC as well as nickel-cadmium batteries, cadmium enters the water supply from leaking landfills and fertilizer runoff (where it is a trace contaminant). Intake of cadmium, which accumulates in the body over time, is associated with hypertension and kidney damage.

Non-metallic inorganics

Include asbestos from cement water mains; cyanide from insecticides, metal refining, and pigment and plastic manufacture; and nitrates. Water contaminated with nitrates from nitrogen fertilizers is most common in farming areas, and can enter municipal watersheds through farm runoff. Infants who drink nitrate-tainted water can contract "blue-baby syndrome."

Synthetic organic chemicals (SOCs)

Are man-made chemicals that contain carbon. SOCs in some drinking water include pesticides like atrazine and alachlor (both suspected carcinogens), notorious industrial chemicals like dioxins and PCBs, and plastic-related chemicals such as phthalates and styrene. A 1995 study by the Environmental Working Group in Washington, D.C. found that approximately 10.2 million people in the Midwest, 1.5 million in Louisiana and 2.4 million in the Chesapeake Bay region drink water contaminated with weed killers; as a result, EWG concludes, 3.5 million people face cancer risks 10 to 100 times higher than the federal benchmark.

Radioactive materials

Including naturally occurring or manmade radionuclides like uranium, radium, radon and strontium (all carcinogenic), may be contaminating the drinking water of 50 million Americans.

Chlorine and its by-products

Chlorine, an effective and currently necessary disinfectant, is added to all water supplies at treatment facilities to neutralize bacteria. Unfortunately, chlorine, reacting with organic chemicals left in the water by soil and decaying vegetation, also forms a group of chemicals called disinfection by-products (DBPs) or trihalomethanes (THMs). DBPs/THMs may be associated with 10,000 or more rectal and bladder cancers each year in the U.S., and are linked to pancreatic cancer as well. These chemicals may also cause major birth defects.


Is naturally occurring in some waters, and is also added to water supplies to fight tooth decay. Too much fluoride can cause mottling of teeth. Since fluoride is removed from the body by the kidneys, people with kidney disease who drink lots of water with fluoride can accumulate fluoride in their bones producing skeletal fluorosis, which can eventually have a crippling effect. There is some suggestion that fluoride is correlated with increased rates of cancer, though the evidence is not clear. Local drinking water programs are required to announce to the public when the fluoride level reaches more than 2 ppm; at this level the possibility of moderate to severe dental mottling increases. There is much debate over whether the risks of fluoridation outweigh its benefits.

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