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Senior Correspondent

Q. What exactly does “environmental health” mean?

It’s a catch-all term that encompasses how your environment impacts your health. It includes how you are affected by social issues such as water pollution, and personal habits such as smoking. The subject of environmental health covers just about everything but the influence of genes on your health.

I’m dedicating this column to interesting and useful facts about environmental health:

POISON CONTROL—Write this number down: 1-800-222-1222. It’s a help number sponsored by the American Association of Poison Control Centers. Call immediately if someone may have been poisoned or if you have questions about poisons. Trained nurses, pharmacists, and doctors provide emergency treatment advice 24/7. All services are free and confidential.

CANCER—Contrary to popular belief, cancer-causing chemicals in the environment cause fewer than 5 percent of cancer deaths in the United States. Most cancers are caused by family history and lifestyle choices such as smoking.

IODINE—If you don’t get enough iodine from your diet, the thyroid gland in your neck can grow to the size of a baseball. When this happens, you get what is called a “goiter.” These became rare after iodine was put into table salt.

WORKER SAFETY—About 137 workers die daily from job-related diseases. This is more than eight times the number of people who die from accidents on the job. Many of these illnesses are caused by chemicals.

LEAD—Paint chips, dust, fumes and water containing lead can get into your body. Even small amounts of lead in your system can impede learning and generate behavior changes. Large quantities of lead can be fatal. A simple blood test can alert you before lead poisoning causes significant problems.

MERCURY—Mercury is a poisonous metal that can get into your body from eating contaminated fish. This silvery metal can build up in the body and cause health problems. Years ago, mercury was used to shape hats. Factory workers breathed fumes from the mercury, which can damage the brain, liver and kidneys. This phenomenon may be what is behind the saying, “mad as a hatter.”

THE SUN—Deaths caused by melanoma—a lethal form of skin cancer—are increasing by four percent a year. You can shield yourself from the sun’s dangerous rays by applying sunscreen, wearing protective clothing and avoiding the sun between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m..

FLUORIDE—Almost half of all Americans drink water that is either naturally fluoridated or treated with fluorides. This has lowered the incidence of cavities as much as 65 percent. Use fluoride toothpaste.

CARBON MONOXIDE—A fire alarm is not enough to protect you in your home. You need a carbon monoxide (CO) detector that you can get at the hardware store. Carbon monoxide is a byproduct of combustion that is produced by a home heating source. If a chimney from your furnace is blocked, carbon monoxide can collect in your home and kill you in your sleep. If you don’t have one in your house, get one.

RADON—Radon is an invisible, odorless radioactive gas that could be in your home. A naturally occurring gas that seeps out of rocks and soil, it comes from uranium buried in the earth and is itself radioactive. Radon poses a risk of lung cancer. Get your house tested.

WARNING LABELS—Read the labels on all house and garden chemicals—even the ones you have been using regularly. The directions change often.

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