How environmental exposure affects our health

Katie Huffling, DNP, RN, CNM, FAAN, executive director of the Nursing Alliance for Healthy Environments, recently gave a presentation on how environmental exposures have affected women’s health at the 25th Annual Women’s Health Conference in Houston, Texas, held in person from September 29th to October 2nd.

In his presentation, Huffling examined data from the World Health Organization, stating that up to 24 percent of global diseases are caused by environmental exposures that could be avoided with proper protocols. This accounts for some of the 80% of major diseases significantly affected by the environment. In children, environmental exposure is the source of 33% of diseases.

More than 280 industrial chemicals were found in newborns during a comparative study, Huffling said. These chemicals include 217 brain/nervous system toxicants, 180 carcinogens, and 208 birth defects or abnormal development. When exposed to these chemicals, people can develop asthma, lung disease, autism, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, Parkinson’s disease, autoimmune diseases, cancer, obesity, and reproductive health complications such as fertility and breast cancer.

These chemicals can also be found in some personal care products. Huffling provided data showing that only 11% of chemicals in cosmetics have been tested for safety. Flame retardants also contain chemicals that can increase the risk of cancer, endocrine disruptors and neurological effects.

To minimize risk, Huffling suggested methods to reduce exposure to these types of contaminants. These include keeping flame retardants out of the reach of children, using a vacuum cleaner with a HEPA filter, washing floors and cleaning furniture regularly, washing hands frequently, thoroughly cleaning the interior of the car and using natural flame retardant fabrics.

There are also risks of exposure to harmful chemicals in certain types of food. Huffling lists a “dirty dozen” foods with these risks, which consist of strawberries, spinach, kale, nectarines, apples, grapes, peaches, cherries, pears, tomatoes, celery, potatoes and chili peppers.

To counter the risk, Huffling also listed a “pure 15.” These foods are safe to eat and include: sweet corn, avocado, pineapples, papaya, onions, frozen sweet peas, eggplant, cauliflower, cantaloupe, broccoli, mushrooms, cabbage, cantaloupe, kiwi and asparagus.

Huffling also reminded attendees to avoid water contaminated with per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances. This can help reduce exposure, along with avoiding microwave popcorn, reducing processed food consumption, and using cast iron pans instead of Teflon non-stick pans.

Phthalates have also been discussed because they can lead to metabolic problems, increased blood pressure, precocious puberty, fertility problems, pregnancy complications such as low birth weight and preterm birth, neurodevelopment and respiratory effects.

To reduce exposure, Huffling recommended avoiding plastic packaging and plastic food containers, keeping plastic away from the microwave, avoiding products with fragrance or phthalates on the label, reducing fast food consumption, and supporting policies to ban phthalates.

For increased safety for women preparing to have children, Huffling has offered a Guide to Safe Baby Products. This allows women to research information about specific baby products and understand how the chemicals in certain products would affect their baby’s health. Huffling reminded women that baby products can be affordable when you separate what you need from what you don’t.

Climate change was also an issue, as rising temperatures and changes in natural phenomena such as drought, floods and forest fires affect women’s health. Many of the health impacts mentioned earlier are also caused by the effects of climate change.

Health impacts of climate change include adverse pregnancy outcomes, increased risk of certain conditions in young children with greater biological susceptibility, and increased risk of exposure to heart disease from activities in older children.

Huffling emphasized the impact that advocacy can have, especially among the voices of healthcare providers. This can be at the associational and institutional level, at the community level, or at the state and federal level. Huffling concluded the presentation by demonstrating Maryland’s fracking ban, a case where health votes matter.


Huffling K. Impact of environmental exposures on women’s health. Presented at: 25th Annual Women’s Health Conference. Houston, Texas. September 29 to October 2, 2022

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