Environmental Poisons

Take steps to keep your environment safe from poisons

Air, water, soil, food and consumer products can be contaminated with toxins that make us sick. These contaminants can be naturally occurring or the result of industrial or man-made impact to the environment. Examples of environmental poisons include: heavy metals found in water and food and other products (e.g. arsenic, lead and mercury), toxins found in homes or in building materials (e.g. asbestos, radon or volatile organic compounds), and air toxins found indoors or outside (e.g. carbon monoxide, cigarette smoke and particulate matter). 

Everyone is affected by environmental toxins. However, infants and children are at higher risk than adults for exposure to environmental toxins. This is due to several factors, among others:

  • A child's smaller size and proportionately larger dose of ingested toxins
  • A child's closer proximity to the ground where toxins might live
  • A child's curiosity and oral exploratory behaviors may lead to ingested toxins

Adults can take steps to keep a child's environments safe by:

  • Learning more about common environmental toxins in your home and in your area 
  • Monitor local air and water quality and follow recommendations from local health authorities
  • Reduce the risk of acute and chronic exposure to toxins by removing potentially harmful products from the home
  • Practice safety measures like installing carbon monoxide detectors on every level of your home
  • Testing your home for radon if you live in a high-risk area
  • Talk with your child's doctor to find out if they need a blood lead test

Acute toxicity or poisoning from high levels of exposure to toxins can generally be identified, but it is much more challenging to recognize the effects of chronic, low-level exposure. In these cases, the poison center works with local and state health departments to identify the sources and long-term treatment of individuals and communities. The poison center is available to answer questions and provide emergency treatment advice for acute exposures. Call us at 1-800-222-1222 to speak with a poison specialist. 

Types of environmental poisons

Sources of carbon monoxide poisoning

Carbon monoxide is an odorless, tasteless gas produced whenever fossil fuel is burned. Symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning include headache, dizziness, lightheadedness and feeling weak or nauseated. In serious cases, loss of consciousness or death may occur. Carbon monoxide poisoning can be life-threatening, especially for children, the elderly or sick. Anyone is at risk for carbon monoxide poisoning when exposed to high enough concentrations. It’s known as the ‘quiet - ’ or ‘silent - killer’ because you may not know you are being affected by it until symptoms appear. If you are experiencing symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning, move to a source of fresh air and call 1-800-222-1222 for poison help or 911.

In and around the home: Malfunctioning or improperly maintained chimneys, gas-powered heating systems, water heaters and any other gas, oil, or coal burning appliances can be a source of carbon monoxide build-up and lead to carbon monoxide poisoning. Indoor use of outdoor camp stoves or charcoal grills can also result in the accumulation of carbon monoxide. During cold weather and after storms or disasters portable generators are often used to heat homes. Generators used indoors or too close to a dwelling can cause carbon monoxide exposure and result in carbon monoxide poisoning.
Cars and trucks: Automobile exhaust produces
carbon monoxide. Injury and deaths have occurred from vehicles left running in attached garages or near open windows. Carbon monoxide poisoning from keyless ignition vehicles inadvertently left running in garages have killed more than three dozen people since 2006.  A leak in a vehicle’s exhaust system or a blocked tailpipe can result in the accumulation of carbon monoxide inside a vehicle. 

Boats: Carbon monoxide can accumulate anywhere in or around your boat while recreating, idling and docking near other boats. Swimming, playing or teak surfing near a boat’s running engine can result in carbon monoxide exposure and death from drowning.  

    Prevent carbon monoxide poisoning

    Proper ventilation and maintenance of equipment is important to prevent exposure to carbon monoxide.

    • Install a battery-operated or battery back-up carbon monoxide detector on every level of your home. Check or replace the device's battery regularly to ensure detectors are working properly. If the detector alarms, leave your home immediately and call 1-800-222-1222 or 9-1-1.
    • Have your fireplace, heating system, water heater and any other gas, oil, or coal burning appliance serviced by a qualified technician every year.
    • Never heat your home with a gas oven, stove, hibachi or use outdoor grills indoors.
    • Portable generators should be used outdoors at least 25 feet away from a window, door or vent. Basements and garages are not safe locations to run a generator, even with doors and windows open. Always use a battery-operated or battery back-up carbon monoxide detector in your home when running a generator.
    • Never leave your vehicle running inside your garage that is attached to a house, even with the garage door open.
    • Ensure keyless vehicles are completely powered off before exiting. Check with your vehicle manufacturer about any safety features like automatic shutoff.
    • Maintain fresh air circulation throughout the boat at all times.
    • Never sit, teak surf, or hang on the back deck or swim platform of a boat while the engines are running. Teak surfing is NEVER a safe activity.
    • Learn how to ventilate your vessel and properly maintain your boat’s exhaust system.

    Carbon monoxide resources

    Prevent lead poisoning

    Lead poisoning occurs when a person's health and body function are affected by lead contamination from something that has been inhaled (breathed in), consumed (eaten or swallowed), or touched (skin contact). Lead can be detected in the blood by a blood lead test. Even low levels of lead in blood have been shown to affect IQ, the ability to pay attention, and academic achievement.

    The good news? Lead poisoning is preventable. By removing the sources of lead in a child's environment, you can reduce the risk of lead poisoning.

    According to the CDC, common sources of lead in a child's environment include:

    • Dust and paint chips from lead-based paint in homes built before 1978
    • Water pipes
    • Some toys and toy jewelry
    • Imported candy
    • Jobs or hobbies that involve lead-based products brought into the home by a parent

    Talk to your child's doctor about obtaining a blood lead level test if you are concerned about lead exposure.

    Lead Poisoning Prevention Resources:

    Lead in Schools - Resources:

    Read more about recent concerns about lead exposures in Portland - area schools

    Lead poisoning from imported products

    Lead poisoning from traditional eye makeup

    Surma is a traditional eye makeup from Asia, Africa, and the Middle East also called "ranja," "kohl," "kajal," "gajal," "kahal," or "al-kahal." Most imported versions have lead in them. Surma can cause lead poisoning when used on the face, eyes or newborn's umbilical stump. 

    Consider using products from Europe or the U.S. instead of those imported from other countries. Safer products are suggested on the Surma Fact Sheet developed by our partners at Western States Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Unit (PEHSU).


    Heavy Metals in SE Portland

    In January 2016, possibly unsafe levels of arsenic and cadmium were found in the air near a glass maker in SE Portland. The company also used chromium +6 (also known as hexavalent chromium) which can be dangerous to health. The Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) is working with the Oregon Health Authority and Multnomah County Health Department to test the air around the company. DEQ adopted Cleaner Air Oregon rules in November 2018 to close the regulatory gaps after the implementation of federal air toxics regulations. "Cleaner Air Oregon is a state health risk-based air toxics regulatory program that adds requirements to DEQ's existing air permitting framework."1


    1 State of Oregon, Department of Environmental Quality, Cleaner Air Oregon. "Cleaner Air Oregon Fact Sheets." https://www.oregon.gov/deq/aq/cao/Pages/CAO-Fact-sheets.aspx Accessed 14 Oct. 2019.


    Cryptosporidium is a germ that causes diarrhea. It can be found in water, food, soil or on surfaces or dirty hands that have been contaminated with feces of humans or animals infected with the parasite. Cryptosporidium or "crypto" is a leading cause of waterborne disease among humans in the United States, especially in recreational water environments like swimming pools. Crypto can survive for days in properly chlorinated pools and naturally occurring waterbodies. It can be spread by swallowing contaminated water from water parks, pools, splash pads, hot tubs, lakes, rivers, ponds, streams and oceans.

    Prevent crypto from contaminating the water by keeping urine and feces out of the water. Take young children on frequent bathroom breaks when swimming and check diapers regularly. Do not swim if you or a child have diarrhea.

    For more information:

    Harmful Algae Blooms

    Harmful algae blooms (HABs) are the rapid growth of algae that can produce toxins causing a variety of illnesses in people and animals. HABs occur in warm fresh, marine or brackish waters and are often concentrated around water’s edge, in coves, backwater areas and arms and lakes of reservoirs. An algae bloom may look like foam, scum, or paint floating on the surface of water. Blooms can range in color from blues and greens to browns and reds. An unpleasant odor may accompany the presence of an algae bloom. It is impossible to tell if a bloom is producing harmful toxins by looking at it. Sampling and testing is necessary to confirm the presence of harmful toxins.

    Symptoms from exposure to HAB toxins depend on how a person is exposed, how long they were exposed, and the HAB toxin involved. Although these toxins are not absorbed through the skin, a red, raised rash or irritation of the skin and eyes can develop after contact with a bloom. If affected water is swallowed, you may experience one or more of these symptoms; headaches, cramps, diarrhea, nausea and vomiting, numbness, dizziness, fever and in some cases paralysis. Some symptoms of exposure may mimic food poisoning.

    To reduce the risk of exposure to HAB toxins, stay out of the water if you see an algae bloom.  Make sure children and pets do not go near the water. When in doubt, stay out!

    For more information: