Hesperian Health Guides

Avoiding and Controlling Toxics

Every day 20,000 people visit the HealthWiki for lifesaving health information. A gift of just $5 helps make this possible!

Make a giftMake a gift to support this essential health information people depend on.

HealthWiki > A Community Guide to Environmental Health > Chapter 20: Preventing and Reducing Harm from Toxics > Avoiding and Controlling Toxics

Preventing exposure to toxic pollution begins with the precautionary principle, which is thinking about the harm an action or product might cause before doing it or using it. While we can make personal and community decisions to avoid harm as much as possible, we also need to demand that business owners and our governments put the long-term health of all people, both rich and poor, and the environment before corporate and personal profit.

Many things we do every day affect how much we and others are exposed to toxics. There are some everyday exposures that we cannot control through personal decisions. But there are some exposures we can limit by making choices that help keep ourselves, our families, and our communities safer and healthier. Personal choices will often lead to community action, since we soon see how impossible it is for any one person to control the harm we are facing from toxics by ourselves.

To stop harm caused by toxics, we need to:

Men and women in a classroom watch and listen as a woman draws on a poster.

Educate ourselves. Learn and teach others what is toxic and how toxic substances cause harm. Read this book, talk with people, and learn from organizations providing information about toxics. Schools, health centers, workplaces, community centers, and our homes can all be places to educate the community about toxics and health. (For a community discussion activity on toxics, see “Snakes and ladders game”.)

Find sources of toxic exposure in our homes, water supply, neighborhoods, workplaces, schools, and region. To assess the impacts of toxic pollution on your community, do a trash walk, do a health survey, or set up a group to monitor pollution.

Avoid whatever toxics you can. Stay away from known sources of toxics. Reduce use of toxic products by finding safer alternatives for cleaning products and using nontoxic forms of pest control (see Managing Pests and Plant Diseases and Controlling Pests). Control toxics by planning a community solid waste program, protecting water sources, and by working to move toxic businesses or activities away from where food is grown and public areas like parks. Make sure toxic materials are not stored, used, or released in or close to where people live. Work to make sure that especially children, the elderly, the sick, and pregnant or nursing women are not exposed to toxics.

We cannot choose what air we breathe, what water we drink, or what materials our employer makes us work with, and we often cannot know what we are being exposed to in the things we eat or the products we use. For this reason, we need to organize businesses and governments to reduce the use of toxics and the threat of toxic pollution. Many people working together in the shared belief that something is too harmful have the power to make change.

We can force companies to clean up

3 workers speak as they walk by a building.
The chemicals we work with are making us sick.
The company could use fewer toxic chemicals and give us better protection.
But the company won’t admit these chemicals are problems. It’s up to us to make the company take our safety seriously.

The responsibility for toxic pollution lies mostly with polluting industries like power plants, manufacturing, or oil and mineral extraction, while the burden of living with toxic pollution and cleaning it up usually falls on the people who live near the problem. Some communities have been able to shift the responsibility and show that a particular industry or company creates a problem and should clean it up and commit to safer practices. (For stories of communities that have forced companies to clean up, see “Organizing against radiation poisoning,” "Take your toxic waste and go home,” "Community action saves a river,” and “Women protest oil exploitation.”)

Pressure governments for better safety standards

It is government’s responsibility to protect people from pollution. But powerful corporations and international financial institutions pressure them to get rid of or ignore regulations about the use of toxics. It takes a lot of community pressure for governments to make and enforce laws that protect people, especially in countries struggling to attract businesses to invest there. But community-based campaigns can force changes in laws (see “Philippines outlaws incineration and toughens waste laws,”, "Take your toxic waste and go home,” "A home run for health,” “Mining and sickness among the Dineh,” and “Treatment for miners with silicosis”) as well as using existing environmental laws.

Press for changes in how products are made

Many industries have developed ways to replace toxic materials and production methods with ones that are more sustainable and less damaging to people’s health and the environment. See more about clean production methods and ways to influence businesses to adopt them.

Change consumption patterns

In the end, there is too much consuming by the wealthy. Less consumption and waste, using enough but not too much, is a big part of the solution.