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Toxic chemicals come from all around us: the air we breathe, food we eat and products we use.
Much of the pollution that surrounds us comes from industry. Toxic chemicals are released from facilities into air, water and land. Examples include: generating electricity (particularly burning coal); manufacturing chemicals; making materials, such as steel and paper; extracting natural resources, such as oil and gas.
Chemicals can also come from farming practices. The agricultural sector uses an array of pesticides, insecticides, and herbicides to kill unwanted insects, plants and animals. Pesticides contaminate the food we eat, as well as air, water and soil when they run-off from crops and enter the wider environment.
You can also be exposed to harmful chemicals through products used at home: perfumes, shampoos, air fresheners, cleaning products, furniture and appliances, frying pans and food and beverage containers.
Check out the Toxic Free Home to find out how to avoid toxic chemicals in your home
Toxic chemicals make their way into our bodies in three key ways:
When chemicals enter through one of these paths they are carried around in the blood stream to different parts of the body. From the blood stream, chemicals can be stored in tissues, like fat and bone. Or, they can go through the liver and end up being excreted.
Once in the body, toxic chemicals can act in a number of ways that can harm our health:
Hormone disrupting chemicals: mimic, block or interfere with hormones such as estrogen, androgen and the thyroid. Can lead to reproductive defects, reduced fertility, and neurological, behavioural and developmental problems.
Carcinogenic chemicals: cause or aggravate cancer, which is the growth of abnormal cells that spread throughout the body.
Neurotoxic chemicals: cause damage to the brain. Can lead to developmental and behavioural disabilities, particularly in children because their brains are still developing.
Respiratory toxins: affect the breathing system. Can cause respiratory illnesses, such as bronchitis, pulmonary fibrosis, emphysema, cancer, and general breathing problems.
Reproductive toxins: can affect reproductive ability and sexual function.
Developmental toxins: can negatively affect normal childhood development and growth.
Children consume more food and liquids and breathe more air per unit of body weight than adults. That means children also potentially absorb higher levels of toxic chemicals than adults in relation to their body size.
Children are also more vulnerable because of their physiological and developmental characteristics. Exposures to toxic chemicals at critical periods of development can cause health problems, including damage to the nervous system and reproductive organs and behavioural problems.
Children are often in closer contact with potential sources of toxic chemicals, mainly because of their exploratory nature, frequent hand-to-mouth activity, and closeness to the ground.
Persistent chemicals are not easily broken down in the environment. They stay in air, water and soil for a very long time, with a longer window of opportunity to be absorbed by people.
Chemicals that bioaccumulate increase in concentration in the tissues of living organisms at higher levels than those found in the surrounding environment. These types of chemicals build up in the tissues of living organisms because the chemicals are drawn to biological fluids and tissues such as fats.