Avoiding Environmental Hazards, Our Health and “Figuring it Out”

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“Avoidance” is the overlooked treatment for health problems.   By that, we simply mean getting away from things that negatively affect our health. Avoidance is actually a listed treatment in many physician treatment guidelines. However, the task of figuring out what to avoid “is complicated.” 

We have gotten aware enough to understand the importance of “avoidance” when it comes to colds and flu. We have seen the world explode with recognition about avoiding diseases such as Ebola. We don’t often think about things like asthma triggers, chemical problems and carcinogens.

Our health care providers understand the role of our environment in our health, but can’t follow us around as we go through our daily lives. The fact is that becoming a part of each patient’s daily activities is not practical.  

Why We Often Can’t Figure it out for Ourselves

Reactions to health and environmental problems occur in time delay.  If we are exposed to carbon monoxide, mold, pet allergens or any other trigger, we do not usually react right away.  It may be 6 hours, or it may be a day or even weeks before we react. Our brains are wired to react immediately to problems. We touch the hot stove we are immediately burned. We cut our fingers, it hurts. Reacting to time delay environmental effects is difficult.    

Everyone can react differently. The best example that I have is that some children can eat a single peanut and become deadly ill. Most children could live on peanut butter and jelly. This can be confusing to the person that is not getting ill from an exposure.       

Individual health histories make each of us different in our reactions.  There are medications and illnesses that make us more sensitive to certain exposures.  As an example, there is one common mold that can affect organ transplant patients on immune-suppressant drugs, and be of little consequence to most other persons.

            Time of exposure can differ. One family member that is in an affected part of the home longer than the rest of the family can have more serious reactions. We use the words “time loading” to describe this factor. As an example, many municipal water systems actually have arsenic in their water. Our bodies can handle those small exposures. However, if I give you multiple exposures from several sources, you can become very ill.  More exposure over more time can make one person ill, and not affect other family members.   

  We are affected by the sum total of our exposures. Homes, cars, schools, workplaces, grocery stores, places of worship are a part of most of our lives and one of those exposures can increase sensitivity to other exposures.  As an example, medical facilities are a common source of exposure to environmental hazards.     

            We just do not know what substances are hazards. Who would think that a new foam mattress or a new furnace installation could cause us health problems? Well, these and many other common materials can be a source of problems.  The wasp nest blocking the gas dryer vent could make us sick. The new interior french drain is often a source of mold and can allow gases previously trapped under the home to vent into the air we breathe.  

We often don’t do anything about what could be affecting our health. Many times people will not have a home checked or hazardous items repaired for their own heath concerns. It is common for the action to come from concern for a child, spouse or a pet that has become ill. 

Sometimes our solutions to environmental concerns make us sicker.  Examples would be some of the fragrance “plug ins.” They can have formaldehyde as a vehicle to help the odor go into the air and often contain a class of chemicals called esters that can be irritants. One anti odor product that was being inhaled by a client contained Ethyl Alcohol, which can damage the nervous system when inhaled. Another example is the ozone generating air cleaners. These can damage lung tissue.    

Some of the Common Environmental Hazards Affecting Homeowner Health

  • Carbon Monoxide from appliances
  • Improper HVAC installations
  • Mold behind walls
  • Natural Gas Leaks
  • Odor Cover-ups
  • Ozone generating air cleaners
  • Open plumbing vents
  • Off gassing from soil below a home
  • Off gassing from building materials and furnishings
  • Legionella from water sources
  • Illegal drug manufacturer residue
  • Stored chemicals in failing containers
  • Improper pesticide application
  • Cover up products that can affect our health

Where to Start When You Suspect an Environmental Health Issue

            The first step is to start a diary for the sick person. Remember that we react in time delay. We also often react to a combination of issues.  If the furnace is a problem, we will only get sick after it has run for a long time. The clue in that instance is that the problem raises its ugly head in cold snaps. If the problem is really an automobile, problems will occur after longer car trips. If a major part of a problem is the workplace, you will be sicker after work and feel better your second day of time away for the workplace. If you want a personal example, it took a while for me to understand that when I had a beverage or food with Aspartame as an ingredient, I would have nightmares and other physical reactions. 
            Keep track of places, meals, the weather and how the person that is experiencing the health issues feels.

Also provide background health issues to help your environmental professional to gather information that may help your medical provider to determine if the exposures are health risks for their patient.  That diary provides an environmental investigator and medical provider a great place to start the search for avoiding health risks.    

In general, if something smells, taste, feels bad, it is not healthy for us. When we feel ill, it is our warning to do something different to avoid becoming unhealthier.  However to avoid environmental problems we need to identify them first. If you or someone in your home feels yucky, do something about it.   




Keep your home clean and dry. Mold needs water to grow.Fix leaks and remove standing water as fast as you can. Open windows or use fans to stop steam from building up in the kitchen and bathroom. Wash your hands and face, and change your clothes after cleaning up mold, raking leaves or cutting grass.

Remove or replace moldy materials that can't be cleaned.Have someone else clean up existing mold, rake leaves and cut the grass. Contact your local health department if mold is a big problem that you can't clean up yourself.


Asthma information

Learn more about triggers
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
(212) 637-3660

Talk to your doctor
Use this Trigger Tracker and Key Questions (PDF, 1.6MB) guide with your doctor.

Other resources

  • Local Health Departments

In New York City, dial 3-1-1.
Outside of New York City, call 1-800-458-1158 and ask for your county health department.

Please Note