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Toxic Substances in our Environment

Toxic substances can range from naturally occurring toxics like arsenic and bacteria to man-made chemicals like flame retardants, or pesticides.

We can't help but come into contact with a range of chemicals in our daily lives. More than 70,000 chemicals are currently in commercial use and little is known about their effects on our health. Substances can pose very different risks depending on how we come into contact with them, the amount that gets into our bodies, and for how long and how often this occurs.

Whether or not a substance poses a risk to our health depends on many things, including individual sensitivities. Sometimes we sense an odor in our environment that we think is making us sick, and even if we are not being exposed to toxic levels of chemicals, that smell can affect our quality of life. 

We know that certain populations are more vulnerable than others to toxic substances and odors in our environment, including: 

  • Developing babies 
  • Children
  • Elderly
  • People with compromised immune systems (i.e. cancer, HIV/AIDS)
  • Organ transplant recipients
  • Pregnant/breast feeding women
  • People with enzyme deficiencies
  • People with certain genetic vulnerabilities
  • Subsistence cultures
  • People with low socio-economic status

Some chemicals last for a long time in the environment and bio-accumulate in plants and wildlife. Learning more about toxic substances empowers individuals to make informed decisions about their daily life. Information on this site provides an overview of the common health effects associated with exposures to a selection of toxic substances.

Oregon is contributing to a multi-state effort to identify and promote safer chemicals and products. A safer alternative poses less potential harm to people or the environment, and serves a similar purpose without being overly costly. Learn more about the Interstate Chemicals Clearinghouse partnership here.

Additional Links

  • Government prioritization lists for chemicals of concerns and background summaries:

Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), Toxics Reduction Efforts

Oregon DEQ's Priority Persistent Pollutant List (pdf)

Washington Department of Ecology's Persistent, Bioaccumulative Toxics (PBT) Initiative

Washington Department of Ecology's List of Persistent Bioaccumulative Toxins 

Maine's Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) Chemicals of High Concern

Maine's DEP Chemicals of High Concern List (pdf)

  • Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry's Promoting Environmental Health in Communities (PEHC) is a collection of factsheets, talking points, and a power point designed to teach communities about the environment, toxicology and health.