Environment Image
print header

Healthy Environment

Contaminants

Contaminants are substances that are present in the environment where they do not belong. Sometimes contaminants can be present in the things we eat, drink, or in the air we breathe. At certain levels, contaminants might be harmful to your health.

Examples of contaminants are arsenic, lead, or asbestos. These contaminants can make us sick. Exposure to various contaminants can happen as a result of manufacturing activities (e.g. arsenic, lead), natural breakdown of substances in the environment (e.g. radon), through the food we consume (e.g. mercury from fish), or through products we use on a daily basis (such as artisanal cosmetic skin creams marketed for skin-lightening, anti-aging, or for the treatment of acne obtained from out of country). As we learn more about the hazards linked to different contaminants, we also look for ways to help reduce your risk of exposure to them.

Arsenic is found naturally in the earth's crust and may find its way into soil, food, water, and the air. The effects of arsenic on your health depends on how you come into contact with it, the type (inorganic vs. organic), the amount and length of time you are exposed to it.
Asbestos is a contaminant that has been used in home insulation or fire-resistant coatings. When undisturbed, the risk to your health is low. Asbestos can affect your health if the products it is contained in are disturbed (e.g. through home renovations or remodeling). When disturbed, the fibres can mix in the air that you breathe and pose a risk to your health. Learn how to reduce your risk of being exposed by viewing more information from the Government of Canada.

Lead is a metal that naturally occurs in small amounts in the environment. In the past, it was used in products such as pencils, paint, and lead crystal. The use of lead in these products have either been banned or strictly regulated by our government. In addition to the regulation of Lead, it is important to know how to reduce your exposure to it. Lead has no obvious taste or smell; however, small amounts of lead can be hazardous to human health. Exposure to low levels of lead can occur through:

  • Food - if grown in soil containing lead.
  • Drinking water - depending on the age of your home, the plumbing may have lead that could leach into your drinking water.
  • Consumer products - e.g. children's toys and furniture.

There are several laboratories that are licensed to test for lead. This list is available through the Ministry of Environment, Conservation and Parks.

If you are curious about whether or not a consumer product contains lead, or looking for information on the safety regulations for consumer products, you can access this information through Health Canada's recalls and alerts. If you think you have a product that might contain lead and are concerned, you can file a report online through the Cosmetics Program (National Capital Region Consumer Product Safety Bureau) by phone at 1-866-662-0666 or by email at CPS-SPC@hc-sc.gc.ca.

Mercury is a contaminant that is released naturally in the environment or through industrial processes. There are three different forms of mercury, elemental, organic, and inorganic. All types of mercury can pose a risk to your health.

A common route of exposure is through the consumption of fish, marine mammals, or wild game. Generally, the popular types of fish eaten in Canada contain a small amount of mercury. Health Canada provides a list of fish that are safe for everyone to eat on a frequent basis and those fish that should be consumed less often. If you enjoy fishing, the Ministry of Environment, Conservation and Parks provides a guide to the types and amount of fish from more than 2,400 fishing locations in Ontario. Health Canada provides information on the safe consumption of fish.

You can also be exposed to mercury from some household items, like older thermometers and LED lightbulbs. If you break an item that contains mercury, do not touch the spilled mercury with your bare hands.

Some skin care products produced outside of Canada, purchased while travelling, or online, have been found to contain high levels of mercury. These products may be marketed for skin lightening, anti-aging, or acne treatment.

Use of these products can result in exposures to levels of mercury thousands of times higher than the limit of 1.0 ppm regulated by Health Canada. When mercury is present in products like skin creams, it can transfer easily from your skin to other people and items in your home. Infants and children are at greatest risk from mercury exposure due to their developing brain and nervous system. Very young children can even be at risk if it is actually a family member who has been using the product, given the close skin-to-skin contact of young children with their family members.

These skin care products are frequently sold as unlabeled artisanal products at markets or through social networks. Mercury can also be found in manufactured products with ingredients listing mercury as various mercury compounds such as quicksilver, cinnabaris (mercury sulfide), or hydrargyri oxydum rubrum (mercury oxide), and/or calomel (mercurous chloride).

Keep yourself and your family safe:

  • Avoid purchasing artisanal cosmetic products marketed as skin-lightening, anti-aging, or for treatment of acne when travelling outside of Canada, or on online marketplaces.
  • Read the ingredient lists on skin care products.
  • Immediately discontinue the use of any suspicious skin care products.
  • Speak with your health care provider or call Health Connection for more information.

If you are curious about whether or not a consumer product contains mercury or looking for information on the safety regulations for consumer products, you can access this information through Health Canada's recalls and alerts. If you think you have a product that might contain lead and are concerned, you can file a report online through the Cosmetics Program (National Capital Region Consumer Product Safety Bureau) by phone at 1-866-662-0666 or by email at CPS-SPC@hc-sc.gc.ca.

Did you find what you were looking for today?
What did you like about this page?
How can we improve this page?
Page
Feedback

If you have any questions or concerns that require a response, please contact Health Connection directly.

Thanks for your feedback.
Failed to submit comment. Please try submitting again or contact us at the Health Unit.
Comment already submitted ...