This chapter provides an overview of environmental hazards to human health in the home, workplace, community, and globally. It is only an overview, and does not include all environmental hazards or all environmentally related illnesses, nor does it detail all of the hazards to, or specific vulnerabilities of, various subpopulations. It does, however, establish a basis for the need to examine the role of nurses in addressing environmental health issues, particularly for readers who are new to the field of environmental health. Subsequent chapters will link the problems described in this chapter to implications for changes in nursing practice, education, and research to allow for more effective interventions in matters of environmental health.


Although a number of systems are used to characterize environmental hazards, most commonly they are classified as either chemical, physical, mechanical, or psychosocial hazards. Table 2.1 presents this classification scheme, along with examples of hazards that fall into each category. Stevens and Hall (1993) have compiled a list of environmental health problems that are categorized by a variety of broad public health issues (Table 2.2), which is also included to illustrate the range of specific environmental problems that may adversely affect human health.


According to EPA, more than 40 million people live within 4 miles of a Superfund1 site, and approximately 4 million reside within 1 mile of a site (NRC, 1991). Those people who live near Superfund sites may be at risk for exposure to hazardous substances in contaminated drinking water, contaminated soil in such areas as playgrounds and gardens, or through the siting of homes on contaminated property with the possibility of exposure to toxic substances via numerous routes and pathways.

Safe drinking water is a significant environmental health concern: currently 25 percent of community water systems provide drinking water that does not meet EPA safety standards for biological and chemical contaminants (DHHS, 1990). Contaminated drinking water can be a result of point-source pollutants such as Superfund sites or non-point sources such


 Superfund sites are hazardous waste sites designated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as a threat to human health. These areas may include leaking underground storage tanks or inactive hazardous waste sites such as municipal dumps and contaminated factories or mines and mills (Chiras, 1994).

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