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.
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.