ANN CAHILL: Biggest health risks hidden in everyday practice

The air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat, and the cleaning agents we use are now our biggest health risks, a report says.

While more green spaces and more time spent on cleaner environments can help greatly, changing lifestyles, new products, and new chemicals are increasing health risks in Europe.

Scientists need to move away from focusing on individual hazards and look instead at the complex combined effects environmental and lifestyle factors are having on our health, according to a report from the European Environmental Agency and the European Commission’s research centre.

Global sales of chemical products doubled between 2000 and 2009, and there is an increasing range of chemicals on the markets, some of which affect human health. Endocrine-disrupting chemicals (affect the hormone system) are found in a wide range of goods from pharmaceuticals to pesticides and cosmetics. Their effects are not fully understood, but they may be responsible for declining sperm count, genital malformation, faulty nervous systems, obesity, and cancer.

Medicines and endo-crine-disrupting substances excreted by people are also to be found in the water we drink in some places as they are not always fully removed by water treatment, the report says.

Polluted air is reducing life expectancy by close to nine months and contributing to cancer, heart disease, bronchitis, and asthma. Recent studies suggest exposing pregnant mothers to polluted air has the same effect as passive smoking and that their children suffer ill effects in later life.

As people live longer, the main causes of premature death and disability have become non-communicable, lifestyle-related conditions such as obesity, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, and cancer.

Another element of everyday life which poses an increasing risk is noise, which can affect cognitive development, cardiovascular disease, and sleep. “Noisy areas are often those with high levels of air pollution, and each factor seems to augment the effect of the other,” said the report.

Two items on which more research is needed are mobile phones and devices emitting electro-magnetic fields that can be considered a possible cancer risk; and nanotechnology, as little is known about the effects of nanomaterials in the body.


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