Environmental Health: Key Terms to Know

By OBOS Environmental Health Contributors | February 2, 2015

Acute: Resulting from short-term, high-level exposure. Often used to denote an illness that comes on quickly and severely.

Bioaccumulation: The uptake of toxics at higher rates than those found in the natural environment and leading to a higher concentration in bodily tissues over time. Through bioaccumulation, toxics move up the food chain, with animals (humans) at the top of the food chain absorbing the highest amounts. This process is especially hazardous for our reproductive health, as toxics the mother has absorbed over time can be passed on to her children, especially through breastfeeding.

Body burden: The cumulative amount of natural and synthetic chemicals that are present in the human body at a given point in time.

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Carcinogens: Chemicals that cause cancer.

Chronic: Resulting from long-term exposure. Often used to denote a disease that progresses slowly and over a long duration.

Endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs): Chemicals that interfere with normal hormone function.

Endocrine system: A system of glands, each of which secretes a type of hormone into the bloodstream. The endocrine system regulates body functioning, with hormones affecting mood, growth and development, tissue function, metabolism, sexual function, and reproductive processes.

Estrogen: The primary female sex hormone. Estrogen is essential for the formation of breasts and reproductive organs, regulating the menstrual cycle, and helping to maintain a healthy heart and bones. Many synthetic and natural compounds affect estrogen production, which is a concern, since women with higher lifetime estrogen levels are more likely to develop breast cancer.

Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs): Exposure to PCBs, organic compounds widely used in manufactured products, has been linked to skin conditions; reproductive disorders such as reduced growth rates, developmental disabilities, and neurological effects; a compromised immune system; and an increased risk of certain cancers. Although banned from manufacture in the United States in 1977, PCBs are slow to break down.

Persistent organic pollutants (POPs): Organic compounds that do not easily degrade in the natural environment, meaning that a variety of toxics can still be found in nature years after they have been banned and/or disused. They thus pose a significant threat to environmental and human health.