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Environmental Threats to Human Health

Our fact sheet on environmental toxins is now available in English and Spanish.

Chemicals used in industry and in agriculture threaten human health. Known toxins include Bisphenol-A (BPA), mercury, atrazine and ozone. These widespread chemicals are found in many products:

  • BPA is used in most plastics and in most tin can linings.

  • Mercury is a by-product of coal used to produce electricity in coal-fired power plants. This plant spew mercury into the air and soil, and mercury then ends up in groundwater, rivers, and lakes, and makes its way into our drinking water.

  • Atrazine, a weed-killer, is used on many large farms in early spring. Rains create run-off, sending atrazine into our lakes and streams, and then into our drinking water.

  • Ozone, the by-product of air pollution and sunlight, is emitted by many industrial sources, including factories and power plants.                                                                                                                                                                   


A strong and growing body of evidence indicates that these common chemicals increase the burden of disability and disease in our population. Human health conditions linked to toxin exposure include:

  • BPA has been linked to earlier onset of puberty, increased risks of breast and prostate cancer, miscarriages, infertility, diabetes and behavioral changes in children.

  • Mercury impairs neurological development in the developing fetus and in young children. Fetal exposure to mercury, primarily from consumption of mercury-laden fish by pregnant women, can lead to harmful effects on cognitive development, memory, attention, language, and fine motor skills in children.

  • Atrazine exposure leads to sex hormone changes in animals. Frogs exposed to atrazine in natural settings—ponds, streams, and rivers—develop hermaphroditism. Though a large body of scientific literature has not definitively linked atrazine exposure to an increase cancer risk in humans, exposure to atrazine does seem to impair fertility.

  • Ozone and other forms of air pollution have major impacts on respiratory health. High ozone levels trigger asthma and emphysema attacks, and put stress on people with pre-existing heart disease. Exposure to ozone may also predispose children and adults to develop lung ailments such as asthma.                                                                                    


Chicago PSR is responding to the public health threats posed by exposure to these and other chemicals in several ways. Though the Environmental Protection Agency regulates many of these widely used chemicals, loopholes exist that allow corporations to ignore regulations. Chicago PSR supports efforts by the US EPA and other regulatory agencies to improve public health by reducing or eliminating chemical exposures.

Chicago PSR represents the public health voice in the fight to shut down Chicago's two coal-fired power plants. For more information about the effect of Chicago's coal plants on health and on our efforts to close these plants, click here.

Chicago PSR board member Dr. Susan Buchanan, Clinical Assistant Professor of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences at UIC School of Public Health, and Associate Director of the Great Lakes Center for Children's Environmental Health, blogs about children's health and the environment.                                                                                                                 

We regularly give lectures on environmental threats to human health. If your organization is looking for a climate change and health lecture, please contact us.

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