Environmental hazards are substances, a state or an event which has the potential to threaten the surrounding natural environment / or adversely affect health of people living in the environment. Environmental hazards includes natural disasters such as storms and earthquakes.
Environmental hazards is also said to be any single or combination of toxic chemical, biological, or physical agents in the environment, resulting from human activities or natural processes, that may impact the health of exposed subjects, including pollutants such as heavy metals, pesticides, biological contaminants, toxic waste, industrial and home chemicals.
Environmental health hazards are ubiquitous, affecting all aspects of life. As noted by the National Research Council, more than 65,000 new chemical compounds have been introduced into the environment since 1950, and new chemical compounds enter commerce each year. The post-World War II era brought major technological advances to society, accompanied by the release of an unprecedented amount of synthetic chemicals onto U.S. markets.
Classes of environmental hazards
- Chemical hazards: Chemical hazards are present when a person is exposed to a harmful chemical at home or at work. Chemicals hazards can be in the form of solid, liquid or gas. Exposure to chemicals could cause acute health effects or chronic health effects. Examples of chemical hazards are – Lead, Carbon Monoxide, benzene, Vinyl Chloride, etc.
- Physical hazards: These are those substances or conditions that threaten our physical safety. Examples includes; Fires, Explosive materials, Spills on floors, Unguarded machines, Noise, Ionization radiation, Electromagnetic fields, Extreme temperature, Cosmic rays, Drought, Earthquake, etc.
- Biological hazards: These are are organisms, or by-products from an organism, that are harmful or potentially harmful to human beings. Examples includes: Bacteria, Parasites, Viruses, Vectors, etc. Biological hazards are the cause of the majority of human diseases. For instance, Bacteria cause cholera, tuberculosis, leprosy, relapsing fever and many diarrhoeal diseases; viruses are responsible for hepatitis B and C, HIV, measles and polio; and there are many diseases caused by parasites.
- Mechanical Hazards: Vibration, Repetitive motion
- Psychological hazards: Violence, Stress, High Job demand, etc.
All of the above are considered as environmental hazards because they result from either human activities or natural processes within the environment.
Effects of Environmental Hazards
Environmental hazards can affect a particular organ or body system, directly damaging it and/or leading to further complications. While scientists generally test substances in labs one at a time, in real life our bodies always deal with more than one hazard at once. The combined interaction of two or more hazards may produce an effect greater than that of either one alone. The amount of exposure, the route of exposure, and the toxic substance(s) we are exposed to will determine the occurrence and the degree of health effects on us.
We can absorb toxic substances through the skin, the digestive system (eating or drinking), or the lungs. Often toxins cause damage on first contact: burns, rashes, or stomach pain. Once in the body, they can damage the internal organs and systems, and build up in the bones and tissues. Both dosage and timing may influence the development and degree of damage; we might be more vulnerable at different stages of life. In general, toxins affect women and men in similar ways; they can have an allergic reaction or liver damage, chronic headaches or respiratory problems, mental retardation or lung cancer, or damage to reproductive organs. Environmental hazards place extra stress on our bodies and compound any other health problems that we might have.
How to Manage Environmental Hazards
This can be achieved through the following steps:
- Identify the hazard: This is the first step. You should identify the type of the hazard that you want to manage. This will also involve describing the condition for exposure and try to answer questions like; What is the source of the hazard? Who is exposed? What are the pathways or activities that expose a person? What part of the environment is involved in the transfer of the hazard to humans? Etc.
- Analyse and Evaluate the hazard: At this point you need to analyse the risk and evaluate the potential of the hazard to cause damage to health. The evaluation may require appropriate design, sampling and laboratory investigation.
- Communicate and consult: When the hazards and risks level have been determined, advice can be communicated on the interventions or control measures that are needed to control the hazard. There can also be consultations with relevant people and organisations.
- Implement risk control measures: At this point the risk control measures agreed upon will be implemented. The interventions or control measures are carried out by the person or people responsible for the hazard or risk.
- Monitoring and review: The implementation of interventions or control measures for the hazard must be followed up in order to determine whether they are successful. Corrective measures can be applied if there is any failure. Identifying appropriate indicators for monitoring is critical and must be done formally.
- Record keeping: Keeping records and reports on hazard management is always important. These records must contain the type of hazard, exposures and what control measures were taken.