Environmental Elements that Cause Illness: A Note from Krista Peterson

Pesticides, plastics, and VOCs are some of the numerous chemicals that come to mind when we think about pollutants.  However, not all substances that can contaminate our air and water are manmade.   Many materials found in nature can become pollutants if we misuse them.


Once prized for its ability to add strength and heat resistance when mixed with other substances, particularly construction materials, asbestos is still mined from the ground in many countries around the world.  While it is extremely effective as a fireproofing material, it is also hazardous – tiny, needle-like fibers of asbestos can get into the air, and when breathed into the lungs, they cause health problems like lung scarring, asbestosis, and mesothelioma, a rare and aggressive cancer of the lining of the chest.  Humans aren’t the only ones who suffer; mesothelioma symptoms have been documented in dogs and cats, as well.  Though the use of asbestos has largely been discontinued in the U.S., it is not officially banned and is still used widely in many other countries.


Lead, too, has been used in the construction of houses and other buildings, primarily in plumbing, since the metal does not rust or corrode, as well as in interior and exterior paint.  It was also added to gasoline to prevent engine knocking, and the burning of the gas released lead particles in the air, exposing many people who worked with cars and engines to heavy metal poisoning.  Once in the body, whether ingested or inhaled, lead can affect nearly every organ system, particularly the brain and nerves.    Lead poisoning in children is especially dangerous, since their nervous systems are still developing.  Though commercially available gasoline is now unleaded, individuals can still be exposed to this dangerous element in the form of chips or dust from old paint.


Like lead, mercury is a metallic element, but is one of the few metals that remains a liquid at room temperature and pressure.  Mercury is found in many coal deposits, and when the coal is burned, mercury vapor is released into the air and water.  Emissions from the burning of other fossil fuels or toxic waste can have the same results.  Of particular concern lately has been the fact that mercury builds up along the food chain, particularly when larger fish dine on smaller fish and then humans consume these larger fish.  Also like lead, mercury acts on the human nervous system, causing impairment in vision, hearing, speech, and movement.

Though asbestos, lead, and mercury all occur in nature, it is human intervention and ignorance that have brought us in contact with them in lethal amounts, causing diseases that are very often preventable.  Symptoms of mesothelioma, for example, are directly attributable to asbestos exposure in close to 80% of cases.  While we may not be able to destroy these materials – nor, perhaps, would we want to, since they are a part of the natural world – we must be aware of their harmful effects on health and work to reduce their presence in our lives.

Krista Peterson.

I am a recent graduate from the University of Central Florida. I am an aspiring writer with a passion for the health and wellness of our community and environment which is why I enjoy writing on the subject. In my free time I enjoy reading, writing and doing yoga.


1. http://www.mesotheliomasymptoms.com/
2. http://jennifermarohasy.com/blog/2008/05/lead-poisoning-in-australian-children/
3. http://www.epa.gov/mercury/exposure.htm
4. http://www.mesotheliomasymptoms.com/mesothelioma-symptoms

13 Responses to Environmental Elements that Cause Illness: A Note from Krista Peterson

  1. Larry Fields February 21, 2011 at 1:37 pm #

    Apropos of harmful chemicals in Nature, we should also mention aflatoxins. Milligram for milligram, these are among the most potent carcinogens known. Aflatoxins are synthesized by the various Aspergillus fungi, which thrive in the high-humidity conditions of improperly-stored grains, legumes, and other crops. A lacto-vegetarian diet that emphasizes peanuts (groundnuts in British English) and soybeans exposes people to higher levels of aflatoxins than they would otherwise encounter in a well-balanced omnivorous diet, and may increase cancer risk somewhat. All vegetarians should be aware of the aflatoxin issue.

  2. val majkus February 21, 2011 at 2:28 pm #

    then there’s arsenic
    arsenic occurs in nature as an oxide; sulphate and alloy; I understand it’s sold in commerce under the name of cobalt – Krista may be able to add to that description which I got off the internet

    My father used to tell stories of how effective it was as a sheep dip;
    there’s plenty about it on the net but Krista may be interested in this paper
    Treatment Technologies for Destruction or Management of Arsenic Wastes
    the review is to focus on arsenic-contaminated wastes which may include:
    ?? organochlorine pesticides;
    ?? concentrated arsenicals;
    ?? concentrated arsenical mixtures; and
    ?? other arsenicals which have been contaminated with pesticides.
    The review excludes arsenic contaminated soil, arsenic contaminated cattle dip sites, and
    arsenic wastes resulting from mining and mineral processing,

    and for a historical viewpoint check out this 1835 link

    and here’s a dipping stick and a brief history of arsenic based sheep dips

  3. a jones February 21, 2011 at 3:13 pm #

    To answer your points.

    As the poster above observes there exist in Nature toxins so powerful and dangerous that they exceed anything Humans can create, for example try Aminata thallodies or even simple ergotamine.

    A sense of perspective is needed. Humans do things and exploit resources which benefit them on a great scale: and that sometimes what they do has minor drawbacks is to be expected.

    Better perhaps a million should prosper even if a hundred die from what has been done.

    Very politically incorrect I know.

    But your points essentially relate to problems dealt with thirty or more years ago.

    Tour summary of asbestos is correct but it fails to distinguish between white asbestos which is relatively harmless and blue asbestos, crocodilite, which is very dangerous indeed.

    As free particles in air likely to be breathed. White asbestos presents no hazard to the general population but can and did do so to factory workers using it who had no adequate protection. That was dealt with fifty years ago.

    Essentially once bound whether by weaving or in cement white asbestos is perfectly safe, once used as a brake material the heat converted it to steartite and so on. As embedded in cement it presents no hazard even during demolition because the fibres remain bound: which has not stopped an industry growing which at vast expense purports to protect people from a risk that does not exist.

    Lead of course is toxic but only at high doses. Hence Devonshire Colic caused by drinking cider from pewter vessels, the lead is dissolved by the acetic acid in the cider. Again when I was young and lead pipes common it was a rule that you did not drink water from the hot tap because lead salt easily dissolve in hot water. Today pipes are copper.

    There never was much excuse for using lead in petrol [gasoline] and there was much clamour about how dangerous the fumes were to children some thirty years ago. There was never any good evidence that it was such a hazard but lead has gone and good riddance says I.

    Mercury, the only metal liquid at STP is not poisonous, you can drink a pint of it without ill effect apart from loosening your bowels. Its vapour is toxic but it has a very low vapour pressure. Mad as a Hatter is said to have come from hatters using to brush the felt. Perhaps or perhaps not.

    Certainly it is so inert that your amalgam dental fillings, despite the odd scare, will not poison you nor the vapour the dental nurse who mixes it or the dentist who uses it.

    There was a scare forty years ago about its use in paper mills which supposedly created various organic mercury compounds in the water outfall. Potentially these might have been highly toxic but it is not clear how much was produced or how it could have got into the food chain. Paper manufacturing whilst still a pretty crude heavy industry has long since moved on.

    So I wish you well in your new career but remember trying to deal with the problems of the past is not the path to future.

    Kindest Regards.

  4. spangled drongo February 21, 2011 at 5:27 pm #

    a jones,

    Possibly as recently as 25 years ago govts still mandated that structural steel in commercial buildings be sprayed with asbestos to give them a suitable fire rating. They also mandated for it to be used in many public areas for fire prevention for the common good.

    I’ve always wondered why then, it was the manufacturer who was found guilty and required to pay compensation for any illness suffered and also why as a result of these mandatory laws the various govts could not have been prevailed upon to share the burden.

  5. a jones February 21, 2011 at 6:35 pm #

    Comment from: spangled drongo February 21st, 2011 at 5:27 pm

    I can only answer part of your question.

    You are entirely correct that in commercial buildings around the world the steel must be protected from fire by cladding, otherwise as the disastrous San Francisco fire showed the metal will buckle from the heat. A similar failure occurred in the twin towers in 9/11 because the trusses were not adequately protected so when the upper trusses failed they carried down the lower but fortunately inside the building: had the construction been more conventional it might either have withstood the impact and fire better or failed with appalling destruction.

    Until the asbestos scare the standard cladding was indeed indeed concrete with white asbestos. thirty years ago Pilkingtons developed a high temperature glass which is compatible with Portland cement. This is increasingly used as an asbestos replacement because although it is more expensive and not as good it is adequate for fire protection.

    As best I understand it the real unsupported cacophony against asbestos arose in the USA where the courts were not averse to upholding outrageous judgments and claims for damages not least because the defendants were usually British as were the insurers: Lloyds of London.

    The result, as in so many lawyer invented suits, remember silicone implants? and egged on by a claque of environmentalists, was to label a useful, safe and cheap material material as some kind of pariah never to be used again. Except in China of course.

    Kindest Regards

  6. spangled drongo February 21, 2011 at 6:54 pm #

    a jones,

    Thanks for that. Interesting points.

    I used to make my own brake pads out of asbestos for racing a Ferrari years ago to get maximum braking performance with [so far] no problems.

    Also, many years ago, kids played and lived in the dirt a lot more than today and built up an immunity to many of these background elements that cause illnesses today.

  7. val majkus February 21, 2011 at 7:05 pm #

    a jones thanks for pointing out the difference between white asbestos and blue asbestos which was first pointed out to me by a builder in Tamworth
    Fibro used to be a favourite building material in the outback and my mother is amazed that she suffered no ill effects when she helped my father build a shearing shed with fibro
    but as to your suggestion to Krista ‘remember trying to deal with the problems of the past is not the path to future’ I think it was Trotsky who said that ‘history keeps repeating itself’ and our young people will only learn the best way to the future by looking at the past
    Anyway thanks for your insightful comments

  8. jennifer February 22, 2011 at 7:26 am #

    Add some dioxins as naturally occuring pollutant … particularly common along the Queensland coast.

    A naturally occuring dioxin was conveniently assumed to be manmade and the focus of a campaign to save the Great Barrier Reef some years back, more here:


  9. Bruce of Newcastle February 22, 2011 at 10:25 am #

    The concern about lead in petrol always tweaks my funnybone since petrol contains quite a lot of benzene and toluene. Thirty years ago we were paranoid about benzene in our organic chemistry lab, treating it as worse than CCl4. No one worries much about benzene in petrol, but mention the word ‘lead’ and they scream and run away.

    Val Majkus – speaking of arsenic, Mellor’s Treatise section on arsenic (vol IX pp 44-45) is worth a read, since it has a bit on the ‘arsenic eaters’ who ate As2O3 on purpose:

    “J.F.W.Johnston said that, as a rule, arsenic-eaters are long-lived, and are peculiarly exempt from infectious diseases, fevers, etc., but unless they gradually give up the practice invariably die suddenly [if they stop eating it].”


    “It is also said that the arsenic-eater becomes plump and fat, and the skin greatly improved.”

    One can see the attraction in days of no antibiotics or acne creams. Apparently horse dealers also found it had a similar useful effect. I wonder if arsenic would be good for used cars too?

  10. val majkus February 22, 2011 at 10:57 am #

    thank you Bruce; what an insight!

  11. spangled drongo February 22, 2011 at 11:59 am #

    I have never found arsenic much good for fingernails. It tended to make them drop off when we used it prior to hormone sprays to kill weeds and pests.

    When the boss told you to dive into the sheep dip to clear the bottom valve, if you queried he would say, “doesn’t hurt the sheep”!

    I new an old dogger [dingo hunter] who used to take strychnine on a regular basis. He showed me the amount on the tip of a teaspoon and said, “any more than that and it will kill me”. In those days in the bush people had severe undiagnosed illnesses they just had to cope with as best they could.

  12. Another Ian February 22, 2011 at 7:39 pm #

    As I recall arsenic is a borderline essential trace element – I think from

    “Trace elements in human and animal nutrition” / Eric J. Underwood

    but don’t have a copy to check.

    Which was a good excuse for eating prawns if you lived in a potentially deficient area.

  13. Nasif Nahle February 27, 2011 at 9:24 am #

    Some years ago, a professor of biochemistry in the faculty of biological sciences found dangerous levels of aflatoxins in maize and kidney beans, so he did spread the news in a TV broadcast. Producers and government raised legal demands against him along with the usual threatening phone calls in such a form that he had to declare publicly that he “was not sure of his results”. He and his family had to move away their former home and he left his chair in the University. Now, the same government says the carbon dioxide, an essential component to life, is a “toxic pollutant” and it is raising taxes to “fight the climate change caused by our emissions of carbon dioxide”. Perhaps we need some associations of producers of carbon dioxide to raise the same demands against our government.

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