21 Easy Steps to Personal
Environmental Health Now!
These tips are also available in folder form for distribution within your school or group from the NIEHS Office of Communications. Pre-teens and younger kids may wish to visit Read the Label, Mabel.
Your environment is your health—so, to improve your health, be sure that your environment is healthy. Of course, your genes play an important role, too. But, while you can't choose your parents, you can do a lot about your personal environment—your surroundings, your exposures, your diet and your health habits—to extend your life and to improve your fitness and appearance.
For example, the cleanup of one part of your environment—the purification of city water supplies—has been the most significant reason that the average life span has very nearly doubled over the past century or so. Millions live longer and better because of clean water and because our country and industries have reduced or eliminated exposures to lead and many other substances.
In addition to the environments we share, each of us has his or her own personal environment. Here are a few thing that you and your family can do—health-wise—about yours:
Read the label, Mabel!
Before you point that spray can, get your spectacles out and see if the directions or warnings have changed. In fact, before you even buy a house or garden chemical, compare labels to be sure you're buying the safest product for your intended use. (You may also decide a bug-less, weed-less lawn isn't all that important.) Note whether a product is for inside or outside use, and what protections—rubber gloves, respirators and such—are needed. Read the labels for dry cleaning solutions and other household chemicals, too. If a label says, "Open windows and ventilate," there's a reason. Likewise, read drug labels for warnings, and food labels for ingredients that don't agree with you, as well as to avoid ugly calories and fat.
Labels have recently been added to some arts and craft supplies regarding ingredients posing a cancer risk. Charcoal has a new warning label. Prescription and non-prescription drugs get new warning labels when a new risk shows up during use. Food labels were reformed in 1993 to be more informative about fats and calories. The Food Label and You is an entertaining and educational video from the Food and Drug Administration to help you understand and use the Nutrition Facts Label to make informed food choices.
Put Drugs High, Vi!
Iron-containing vitamins, as well as prescription and non-prescription drugs like aspirin or acetaminophen can kill kids who think they're candy. Lock them up (we don't mean the kids but.....) or put them out of reach. Same with paint thinners, detergents, drain openers and other yard and home chemicals.
Look in your telephone book for your local Poison Control Center and ask for information and "Mr. Yuk" telephone number stickers to place on your telephone for use in a poisoning emergency. Or locate your nearest Poison Control Center .
Know the dangers of your job, Rob:
Wherever you work there are risks. They may be physical, like falling off a ladder or lifting heavy packages, or chemical risks from petroleum products and solvents. In other occupations, computer use and other repetitive tasks pose risks of carpal tunnel syndrome. Identify the risks of your work and take the necessary precautions - whether a particular respirator, gloves, goggles or a particular posture.
Your cold might be your cat, Matt:
You may be allergic to dust mites, your cat, the pollen from trees, or cockroaches. A-a-a-choo! And wheeze! Plastic mattress and pillow covers, an exterminator and the elimination of dust-holders like curtains and rugs in your bedroom may help. Or if it's trees and pollen that get to you, air conditioning and air filters may provide relief.
People are also allergic (which generally means they react to substances that don't bother other people) to mold and various chemicals. Asthma is often provoked by reactions to such substances. Get the factsheet Asthma and its Environmental Triggers from NIEHS or Airborne Allergens Something in the Air from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases to learn more.
Don't drink from the lake, Blake:
A crystal-clear stream or lake may be a nice place to wade or swim but may harbor bacteria that can turn your stomach inside out. When walking in the wild, take along your own drinking water or disinfection kit.
To avoid waterborne diseases in less developed countries, you usually need to avoid tap water (even ice cubes) and to stick to bottled water, to cooked foods or fruit you peel, such as bananas or oranges.
Get rid of the lead, Ted:
A lot has been done to reduce our contact with the mind- and body-destroying lead in our environment. Lead-added paints and gasolines are a bad memory. (Lead content in paint was greatly reduced in the 1950s and later, in 1978, the addition of lead was eliminated.) But there remain many deteriorating, pre-1950 buildings with flaking lead paint that contaminates the ground and ends up on children's hands and toys as dust. Even low doses of lead can affect a child's development - causing problems with learning, remembering and concentrating. Keep the toddlers away from lead by cleaning up the flakes and dust regularly and either carefully removing the source or walling it in.
Occasional high-level lead poisonings still occur from craft-style lead-glazed pottery cups and dishes. Questionable products are best used for display, rather than food.
If there's a chance of lead exposure, a simple blood test can show how much lead a child is absorbing - before lead poisoning causes significant learning and behavior problems. More than one-fifth of African-American children living in housing built before 1946 have elevated blood lead levels. For more information, talk to your doctor or call 1-800-LEAD-FYI. A short booklet called Lead and Your Health can be obtained from NIEHS by calling (919) 541-3345, or sending email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Hey Ron, what about Radon?
Radon is a gas you can't smell in your home, but you can test for it. A naturally occurring gas that seeps out of rocks and soils, it comes from uranium buried in the earth and is itself radioactive.
There is evidence of an elevated lung cancer risk among miners exposed to radon, especially miners who smoke. Radon also seeps into homes and collects in varying amounts. To assess the possible danger, the Institute of Medicine convened a panel of experts to review the data. They said the lung cancer risk from radon in homes is small compared to that from tobacco products. Of about 160,000 annual lung cancer deaths, radon-related deaths were estimated to probably total 15,400 to 21,800, mostly because of a synergism between smoking and radon. Fewer than 3,000 deaths were estimated as being radon-related among non-smokers. (Learn More About the Dangers of Smoking from Mama Didn't Know and Smokefree Kids.)
The picture is not perfectly clear, the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis agrees, but the weight of evidence is that radon in homes may pose a greater risk to more people, mostly smokers (who are people, too), than die from accidental falls, poisonings, home fires and burns, or accidental discharges of firearms. The test is cheap, and, often, simple ventilation can turn high radon levels into low ones. For more information call 1-800-SOS-RADON.
Leo, test for CO!
Carbon monoxide from space heaters and other home heating sources can be deadly. You need one or more smoke alarms, frequently checked of course, but they won't alert you to CO. For that, you need a carbon monoxide alarm.
Grow some plants, Vance:
House plants are cheery, and there's some evidence they clean pollutants from the air.
Turn it down then, Townsend!
While occasional loud noises may just reduce your hearing temporarily, continuous exposures or very loud noises can cause permanent damage. If you can't remove the noise, wear protective gear or ear plugs.
Loud motorcycles, firecrackers and small arms fire, if close enough, can damage hearing, immediately or over time. That is, hearing may decline and/or there may be ringing, buzzing or roaring in the ears or head. Additional information is available at the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communicable Disorders , 1-800-241-1044.
Beware the heat, Pete!
Exercise is a way to keep fit, but when you run or skirmish in hot weather, try to do it in the cooler hours. Keep water handy and drink plenty of it. Keep some available for Fido and the cats, too. Heat is a serious threat! Nearly 1,700 people lost their lives from heat-related illnesses in a big heat wave of 1980. See Extreme Heat for more details.
Mind the ozone, Tyrone:
Ozone is a highly reactive form of oxygen—three atoms of oxygen linked together instead of two—that occurs when there is a lot of vehicle exhaust and factory emissions. It accumulates when the air is stagnant. Ozone can irritate and damage sensitive tissues in the lungs, nose and throat, and to make breathing hard, especially if you exercise outdoors during its peaks. Mind the ozone and other air quality alerts in your newspaper, TV and radio weather casts: Jog in parks away from auto traffic, when possible. Especially if you have asthma, bronchitis or emphysema, limit the time you spend outdoors when ozone levels are high.
Don't overfill, Bill:
Since evaporating gasoline adds to the ozone problem, when you service your car or mower, don't overfill.
Wash hands clean, Jean:
Whether you've been sneezing, handling chicken or other raw poultry or meat, have been to the toilet or changed a diaper, or are preparing to deliver a baby or perform brain surgery, washing your hands and environs (such as your cutting board in the kitchen) is a most important way to prevent the spread of germs and infection. In many of these situations, it is the most important preventive measure you can take. It's as simple as that.
You may not be doing surgery, but more than 6.5 million cases of "tummy flu" or worse occur each year - often because hands and food implements aren't washed often enough, especially after handling poultry. To start youngsters out with good hand-washing habits, your closest FDA office (listed in the U.S. pages of the telephone book) can provide the "Food Safety Coloring Book."
Careful of the drift, Cliff:
If you spray your roses upwind of your tomatoes, you are likely to dose your family with unapproved pesticides. Some pesticides are for non-food use only and have not been proved safe for foods.
Eat a good diet, Wyatt:
Not just an apple but five or more servings of fruits and vegetables a day may help keep the doctor, cancer and other disorders away. For a booklet on the value of "five a day" or for other information on cancer and diet, call 1-800-4-CANCER.
Take a vitamin pill, Jill:
The federal government recommends all females of child-bearing age take folic acid, one of the B vitamins - which you can get in a multi-vitamin pill or a bowl of specially fortified cereal -- to reduce the chances of having a child with his or her spine laid open or brain missing. The vitamin is needed regularly, before as well as during pregnancy, and its hard to get the amount needed just by an ordinary diet. You might also visit the March of Dimes Website for more information on folic acid .
Put the belt on, Shelton:
You can't avoid all accidents, but you can minimize the results. Some good safety habits can save your life and health. Race drivers know that wearing seat and shoulder belts can reduce your risk by 45-50 percent. Other injury-preventing habits that athletes, heroes and regular folks take: wearing bike helmets, athletic cups and other protective athletic gear, looking ahead of time for the fire exits in a theater or hotel, checking your smoke detectors at home to make sure they beep, locking hunting rifles and other firearms away from kids and others who might misuse them, avoiding unlit and dangerous areas (and lit and dangerous people.) Carry a first aid or snake bite kit, when in the wild. Find a partner or two for climbing, swimming or other exploits -- someone to get you out of a tight spot or go for help.
Respect sex, Tex:
Teens need to know that more than 13 million Americans, two thirds of them under age 25, have sexually transmitted diseases including HIV infections. For some this will mean early death, infertility or cervical cancer. According to publications of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the advice of other public health experts, sex should be delayed until later or the risks should be reduced by using a latex condom.
Study after study shows that preparing children with sexual education does not lead to earlier sexual experience but, according to several studies, may delay it. For additional information, call the National STD Hotline , 1-800-227-8922, or the National AIDS Hotline at 1-800-342-AIDS, or (in Spanish, 1-800-342-SIDA).
Don't puff or chew, Stu:
With tobacco, people die young and, often, slowly. Some young people worry more about the smell, about their teeth getting dark and about getting wrinkles - which are also reasons not to smoke, but relatively trivial.
Smoking kills more people than AIDS, alcohol, drug abuse, car crashes, murders, suicides and fires combined. For help in quitting, call 1-800-4-CANCER, or 1-800-QUIT-NOW (1-800-784-8669) (TTY 1-800-332-8615); or visit www.smokefree.gov (Learn more about the dangers of smoking from Mama Didn't Know; The Cool Spot! , the young teen's place for information on alcohol and resisting peer pressure; and NIDA for Teens: The Science Behind Drug Abuse )
Watch the burn, Fern:
It's not just sunburn you need to worry about or even ordinary skin cancer, which can usually be surgically removed without difficulty, and it's not just wrinkles. It's melanomas (malignant moles that sometimes spread and can kill) and cataracts that dim vision. Hats and other covers and ultraviolet-blocking sunglasses all can help. For more on what melanomas look like (so you can get them removed) call 1-800-4-CANCER.
For more information about sun safety, download the SunWise Activity Book , the Mission: SunWise story, and all the other SunWise publications created by the Environmental Protection Agency to promote sun-safe behavior at any age.
The environmental actions listed are all about prevention. Protecting yourself from your environment (and protecting your environment from abuse)—these are preventive health measures......for your good health.
These tips are also available in folder form for distribution within your school or group, from the NIEHS Office of Communications. Pre-teens and younger kids may wish to visit Read the Label, Mabel.