Health impacts of toxins and contaminants
Environmental toxins and contaminants are physical, chemical and biological pollutants and organisms that can cause:
Common environmental toxins include:
poisonous chemicals and chemical compounds, like pesticides
physical materials, like asbestos
organisms, like mould and blue-green algae.
The Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water is the main agency that monitors hazardous waste. This includes maintaining the National Pollutant Inventory, which informs the community, industry, and government about substance emissions in Australia.
Asbestos is a mineral used in Australian building material until the mid-1980s. Most houses built before 1990 contain asbestos.
Asbestos fibres can go into the air if there is damage to the building. Inhaling asbestos fibres can cause:
pleural plaques – thick tissue that forms in the lining of the lung
In Australia, 90% of all mesothelioma patients were exposed to asbestos.
During a building fire or bushfire, asbestos in the air is less of a concern. But you should always wear personal protective equipment and wet the debris to avoid dust when cleaning up. Use a licensed asbestos removalist wherever possible.
The Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency is the main agency responsible for improving asbestos awareness and ensuring asbestos is effectively and safely managed, removed and disposed of.
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are human-made chemicals that are used to make products resistant to heat, stains, grease, and water. Most people are likely to have had some exposure to PFAS.
PFAS exposure has not been shown to cause disease in humans. However, it has been associated with mildly elevated levels of cholesterol, effects on kidney function and effects on the levels of some hormones. The differences reported for these associations have generally been small and unlikely to be important to health outcomes.
PFAS substances take a long time to break down in the environment and human body, so as a precaution it’s recommended to limit exposure where possible.
Health-based guidance values for PFAS for use in site investigations in Australia
The National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health conducted an epidemiological study examining the potential health effects resulting from PFAS exposure in 3 Australian communities. See the study's final results and read the final reports.
If you find any content about PFAS contamination distressing there are a range of mental health services available to support you.
The Australian Government PFAS Taskforce coordinates and oversees national responses to PFAS contamination. Visit their information portal for more information.
Mould is a type of fungus that grows in moist and humid areas like in garden composts and on decaying organic matter. It can also grow indoors on damp and poorly ventilated areas like leaking roofs and walls and from faulty plumbing and condensation.
Breathing in mould spores can cause:
coughing or wheezing
People with weakened immune systems, allergies, severe asthma or lung diseases are particularly vulnerable. Learn more about potential health effects of mould in the environment.
Mould is often an issue after a cyclone or flood, due to excess moisture, long periods of heat and humidity, and pooling of water. Read the Queensland Government's fact sheet about dealing with mould after a storm, flood or cyclone.
Clandestine drug laboratory toxins
Laboratories that manufacture illegal drugs in secret are called clandestine drug laboratories. Most illegal drug laboratories are in residential buildings, and although police remove chemicals and equipment, there can be residual toxins on surfaces.
Exposure to drug toxins and gases can cause behavioural, psychological, or physiological health effects. The frequency and severity of these effects increase with the nature, level and duration of exposure.
Learn more about the public health risk of clandestine drug laboratories.