Environmental Diseases: Overview

Environmental diseases are illnesses and conditions that result from natural and human-made environmental problems.

LeeAnne's Story

In 2015 LeeAnne Walters was living with her four children in Flint, Michigan, when she began to notice something just wasn't right with her family. Her twin boys kept breaking out in rashes and one of them had stopped growing, Another child suffered from mysterious stomach pains. Everyone's hair was falling out.

* , learning disabilities, and weight loss. In severe cases, it can be fatal.

In October 2015, Flint switched back to the Detroit water system, but this did not immediately solve the problem, and in January 2016 President Barack Obama declared a state of emergency in the city. LeeAnne Walters and her family moved out of the state in October 2015, but she says health problems linger in her children and she worries what the longterm effects of the lead exposure will be.

What Are Environmental Diseases?

Environmental diseases are those diseases that can be linked directly to factors in the environment, such as air pollution, water pollution, ground pollution, and climate change. Many of these factors are the result of human intervention in the planet's ecology.

Air pollution is described by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences as “a mixture of natural and man-made substances in the air we breathe.” Many of these substances can cause short-term (acute) and long-term (chronic) illnesses. Indoor air pollution involves exposure to chemicals or toxins * carried by air or dust inside buildings. Sources can include the chemicals in household cleaning products and appliances, tobacco smoke, mold, gases (such as carbon monoxide), building materials (such as asbestos * ), and outdoor allergens that enter the home (such as roaches and pollen). Outdoor air pollution involves exposure to harmful substances in the air outside buildings, such as motor vehicle exhaust and discharges from industrial sites, which create smog (a mixture of fog, smoke, and other air pollutants). Natural causes of outdoor air pollution include the dust from sandstorms or the ash from an erupting volcano or a wildfire.

Water pollution is described by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences as “any contamination of water with chemicals or other foreign substances that are detrimental to human, plant, or animal health.” Specific water pollutants include waste from processing sewage and food, chemicals such as lead and mercury, runoff from agricultural lands (including fertilizers and animal waste), chemical waste from industry, and chemical contamination from hazardous waste sites.

Ground pollution is caused by air pollutants that fall to the ground and are absorbed through rainwater and snowmelt. Ground pollution is also caused by agricultural pollutants such as fertilizers and animal waste. As ground pollutants enter the water table (water beneath the ground), they move into streams and lakes to pollute the water, which creates a cycle of pollution that affects people's health.

Dirty water discharged into rivers can pollute the water, creating conditions that can lead to environmental diseases.

Dirty water discharged into rivers can pollute the water, creating conditions that can lead to environmental diseases.

What Are Some Common Environmental Diseases?

Respiratory diseases

Respiratory diseases affect the lungs. Types of illnesses caused by environmental factors include asthma, which causes wheezing, breathlessness, and a tightness in the chest; bronchitis, an inflammation of the airways; and asbestosis (as-bes-TO-sis), which is caused by the inhalation of asbestos and can lead to scarring of lung tissue and difficulty breathing.


Several types of environmental pollution can cause cancer. Exposure to asbestos, coal tar, and tobacco smoke can lead to lung cancer. Persons who are exposed to radiation may develop several different kinds of cancer, including leukemia (a cancer of the blood cells) and thyroid cancer. Recent evidence suggests there may be a link between pesticide exposure and increased instances of certain cancers in children.

Neurologic disorders

Pesticide use has been associated with neurologic diseases, as has exposure to certain chemicals, such as lead and mercury. Extreme weather events cause stress that can affect neurologic function. A child or pregnant mother's exposure to certain toxins can also cause developmental delay in the child.

Cardiovascular disease

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the exposure of nonsmokers to tobacco smoke causes 33,000 deaths yearly due to coronary heart disease. Exposure to metals and chemicals such as lead, arsenic, cadmium, and some solvents can also cause cardiovascular disease.

Birth defects

Birth defects are structural or functional abnormalities * that cause the physical or intellectual disability of a child at or before birth, such as speech difficulties or heart defects. The exposure of a pregnant woman to air pollution or certain solvents, pesticides, plastics, and chemicals can lead to birth defects, as can maternal smoking, drinking, and drug use. Environmental toxins can also play a part in miscarriages or stillborn births.

Gastrointestinal issues

Gastrointestinal disorders are disorders that affect the esophagus, stomach, and intestines. Contaminated water can cause gastrointestinal symptoms such as diarrhea * , vomiting, and stomach pains. These illnesses are more common in the developing world where access to safe water is often limited.

How Do People Know They Have an Environmental Disease?

Diagnosing environmental illnesses can be difficult since many of them do not produce symptoms in their early stages. Signs of environmental disease in humans are specific to the disease a person has. For example, if a person has asthma, exposure to cigarette smoke or other air pollution may cause shortness of breath and difficulty breathing. In healthy people, extreme air pollution may cause shortness of breath and tearing of the eyes. If environmental factors are suspected, a doctor will ask questions to try to pinpoint where the exposure is coming from. Treatment varies depending on the cause of the illness.

Can Environmental Diseases Be Prevented?

Individuals can prevent environmental disease by avoiding contaminants * in the environment. For example, when the air quality is poor, people with respiratory disease should stay indoors with windows closed. Not smoking or stopping smoking tobacco products can improve not only a person's health but also the health of those around him or her. People can use sunblock while outside to prevent skin cancer and wear sunglasses to decrease the risk of cataracts. People should respond appropriately to environmental health warnings. For example, if the community source of drinking water becomes contaminated, the health department may issue a “boil water” advisory, which means people should not drink or cook with the water until it has been boiled for a specified time to kill any disease-causing contaminants.

More important, environmental diseases can be prevented by decreasing pollution of the air, water, and ground. National agencies, such as the Environmental Protection Agency, and regional and local agencies, such as public health departments, monitor the environment and provide information to legislators who enact regulations to improve air, water, and ground quality. For example, legislation at national, state, and local levels has been enacted to limit toxic emissions from motor vehicles and factories. State and local legislatures have enacted regulations that limit areas where people can smoke cigarettes in public. Public health departments monitor air and water quality routinely and provide warnings to the public when air or water quality falls below certain standards.

See also Allergies • Anemia, Bleeding, and Clotting • Antibiotic Resistance • Asthma • Autoimmune Disorders: Overview • Bacterial Infections • Bioterrorism Agents: Overview • Birth Defects: Overview • Botulism • Bronchiolitis and Infectious Bronchitis • Cancer: Overview • Carbon Monoxide Poisoning • Cataracts • Cholera • Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) • Cold-Related Injuries • Cyclosporiasis and Cryptosporidiosis • Dietary Deficiencies • Diphtheria • Elephantiasis • Emphysema • Eye Disorders: Overview • Eyelid Disorders: Overview • Fungal Infections • Gastroenteritis • Genetic Diseases: Overview • Hantavirus Pulmonary Syndrome • Influenza • Lead Poisoning • Legionnaires' Disease • Leukemia • Lyme Disease • Malaria • Meningitis • Mycobacterial Infections, Atypical • Mycoplasma Infections • Shigellosis (Bacillary Dysentery) • Tick-Borne Illnesses: Overview • Tobacco-Related Diseases: Overview • Trypanosomiasis • Tuberculosis • Vaccines and Immunization • Zoonoses: Overview


Books and Articles

Levy, Barry S., David H. Wegman, Sherry L. Baron, and Rosemary K. Sokas. Occupational and Environmental Health: Recognizing and Preventing Disease and Injury, 6th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Air Pollution & Respiratory Health.” http://www.cdc.gov/nceh/airpollution/default.htm (accessed April 4, 2016).

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Drinking Water—Regulations: The Safe Drinking Water Act.” http://www.cdc.gov/healthywater/drinking/public/regulations.html (accessed April 4, 2016).

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals.” February 2015. http://www.cdc.gov/exposurereport/ (accessed April 4, 2016).

Lurie, Julia. “Meet the Mom Who Helped Expose Flint's Toxic Waste Nightmare.” Mother Jones. January 21, 2016. http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2016/01/mother-exposed-flint-lead-contamination-water-crisis (accessed April 5, 2016).

National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. “Air Pollution.” https://www.niehs.nih.gov/health/topics/agents/air-pollution (accessed April 4, 2016).

National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. “Environmental Diseases from A to Z.” https://www.niehs.nih.gov/health/assets/docs_a_e/environmental_diseases_from_a_to_z_english_508.pdf (accessed April 4, 2016).

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “Water: Consumer Information.” http://water.epa.gov/drink/info/index.cfm (accessed April 4, 2016).


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 1600 Clifton Rd., Atlanta, GA, 30329-4027. Toll-free: 800-CDC-INFO. Website: http://www.cdc.gov (accessed June 3, 2016).

National Center for Environmental Health. 4470 Buford Hwy. NE, Atlanta, GA, 30341-3717. Toll-free: 800-CDC-INFO. Website: http://www.cdc.gov/nceh (accessed July 27, 2016).

National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. 111 TW Alexander Dr., Research Triangle Park, NC 27709. Telephone: 919-5413345. Website: http://www.niehs.nih.gov (accessed June 3, 2016).

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. 1200 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20460. Website: https://www3.epa.gov (accessed June 3, 2016).

U.S. Public Health Service. Toll-free: 800-279-1605. Website: http://www.usphs.gov (accessed June 3, 2016).

* developmental delay is a condition in which a child is less developed mentally, physically, socially, or psychologically than considered normal for the child's age.

* toxin is a poisonous substance that is detrimental or lethal to the health of a person or the environment.

* asbestos is a group of minerals that occurs naturally in the environment as silicates. When asbestos fibers are breathed in (inhaled), they can cause scarring and inflammation in the lungs.

* abnormalities are things or events that are out of the ordinary; not normal.

* diarrhea (di-ah-RE-uh) is characterized by frequent, watery stools (bowel movements).

* contaminant is any substance that makes unclean or impure the substance into which it is placed. For example, smoke is a contaminant in air.

Disclaimer:   This information is not a tool for self-diagnosis or a substitute for professional care.

(MLA 8th Edition)