Environmental Illness: What You Need to Know
While no standard definition exists, an environmental illness is often defined as one that develops because a person’s surroundings makes them sick or produces a poor state of health, not because of bacteria or viruses. Environment and surroundings include water, food, air, and chemicals.
Illnesses can range from recurring headaches to cancer, and exposure to environmental toxins can either build up over time, causing illnesses that develop slowly, or they can result in an acute, sudden reaction. Often, environmental illnesses involve the body’s neuro-somatic systems, creating bodily illnesses brought about by brain function disturbances.
Substances That Can Make You Sick
Generally, some type of repeated chemical exposure causes an environmental illness, and the more exposure you have, the more likely you are to become sick—or sicker. Examples of chemicals and toxic substances you can be exposed to include:
- Workplace chemical substances, such as crystalline silica, industrial solvents, heavy metals, chlorine and chlorine compounds, benzene, pesticides and herbicides, formaldehyde, and isocyanates. Asbestos can also create problems for those who renovate or demolish old buildings or who work in shipyards.
- Home chemical toxins, such as lead (from lead paint or lead leaching out of very old water pipes, such as in Flint, Michigan), carbon monoxide (from poorly-vented wood stoves or heating systems), asbestos (in older buildings undergoing renovation), mold (from chronically damp buildings), pesticides and herbicides (used by the homeowner or landlord), and the chemicals that are released, or that “off-gas,” from recently installed carpets or new furniture.
- Industrial pollution, such as chemical runoff from nearby industrial locations, which invades the groundwater supply. Long-term chemical contamination of groundwater can result in a number of illnesses, ranging from neurological damage to many types of cancers. Polluted water can also cause allergies and rashes in those who use the water for washing their clothing and bathing. Such industrial contamination can also poison the land, diminishing property values and preventing the growth of food.
- Industrial pollution that contaminates the air we breathe. Airborne toxins include carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, petrochemicals such as benzene and toluene, chlorine compounds like perchloroethylene and methylene chloride, and airborne heavy metal particles from chemical compounds including mercury, chromium, cadmium, and lead.
Maryland’s Toxic Sites
An Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) database keeps track of more than 21,600 toxic sites in the United States and its territories. Maryland contains 160 locations that are contaminated with toxins. When it comes to total toxic releases per square mile, our state is listed as 31st out of 56 states and territories.
The EPA follows the number of toxic sites located on floodplains as well, because flooding can spread contaminants beyond a localized area and also render drinking water and soil unusable. According to the data analysis done by The New York Times, 2,500 sites are in areas vulnerable to floods, with 1,400 of them in high-risk locations. The EPA does not list how many toxic sites are in Maryland’s flood-prone areas. However, the agency notes that every state contains at least one site in a vulnerable location.
Superfund is an EPA program that was begun to take care of contaminated sites. The program forces responsible parties to either clean up contaminants or to reimburse the government so that the EPA can have the site decontaminated. If no responsible party can be determined, Superfund authorizes the EPA to perform the cleanup and pays any associated costs.
Example Court Cases in the U.S.
New cases involving environmental contaminants that cause serious illness arise on a regular basis. Here are three that are either ongoing or that were recently settled:
- A suit was filed in April, 2018, by a woman who claimed to have developed an incurable autoimmune disorder, Sjogren’s Syndrome, from heavy metal groundwater contamination originating with a Kansas City Power & Light coal-fired electric power plant in La Cygne, Missouri. A whistleblower contractor whom she met by chance allegedly tipped her off regarding the possible cause of her illness. The case is ongoing.
- A man in Wilmington, NC, developed colon cancer (2011) and then stomach cancer (2015) while in his fifties. When he read in 2017 that an unregulated chemical, GenX, was being discharged by The Chemours Co. of Fayetteville, NC, and was found in the local water supply, he decided to join a toxic tort case against Chemours, a spinoff of DuPont. The case is ongoing.
- A separate case involving DuPont and The Chemours Co. was settled in February, 2017, with each company paying $335.4 million in response to thousands of suits that claimed exposure to perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) which was released by a West Virginia plant into the drinking water supply. PFOA is a plastic coating and is used to produce products such as cooking pans covered with Teflon. There was no admission of fault or liability.
Symptoms and Diagnosis of Environmental Illness
Environmental illness can cause a wide variety of symptoms depending on the contaminant that is causing the illness and the conditions under which a person was exposed.
Some examples of regularly-occurring symptoms that could be signs of an environmentally-caused illness include:
- Muscle aches
- Fever and chills
- Trouble breathing
- Any of the common signs of cancer.
Some of the illness types linked to environmental toxins are:
- Various cancers, including lymphomas
- Brain, liver, and kidney damage
- Lung diseases causing permanent impairment
- Nerve damage and loss of motor skills
- Autoimmune disorders
- Reproductive problems and congenital disease or malformations in children.
Diagnosing an illness arising from environmental causes can be difficult and time-consuming, because it is not always clear why symptoms are occurring. Worse, symptoms of environmental illness may be mistaken for another ailment. A doctor would generally take an extensive patient history that concentrates on any history of toxic exposure at work, at home, or in the community. One thing that can help the doctor is keeping a journal of your symptoms and their appearance, because your information may point to patterns that help determine exposure.
What Happens When You Bring a Case?
A case brought against a polluter or contaminator on behalf of those who have been injured by harmful substances is known as a toxic tort. A tort is a civil wrongdoing that caused harm, and the word toxic means the harm was created by a toxic substance. Toxic torts cover a wide range of injuries, from silica dust exposure at work to lead paint poisoning in older homes.
Liability in toxic tort and environmental illness cases can rest upon many parties. Examples of those who might be liable in such cases are:
- Manufacturers, transporters, and distributors of hazardous substances
- Those who store hazardous substances and those who own the property where substances are stored
- Employers of workers exposed to hazardous substances
- Manufacturers of equipment that exposed workers to hazardous substances or that failed to protect workers from hazardous substances.
Let Down by the System? Let “The Injury Lawyer” Help You
One problem inherent in Maryland toxic tort cases is that the harm suffered is not always immediately apparent. While a chemical spill or explosion is likely to produce obvious and sudden injury, some toxic substances have long latency periods; their effects may not become evident for months or even years. State statutes of limitation, or deadlines, for filing personal injury claims related to toxic torts begin at the moment the injury is discovered. Time is of the essence for those looking to bring manufacturers and negligent individuals to justice while obtaining the compensation they deserve.
Steven H. Heisler, your Baltimore toxic tort attorney, can help evaluate your claim, get in touch with expert witnesses, conduct a thorough investigation, and negotiate the discovery and court processes necessary to successful verdicts and settlements. The Law Offices of Steven H. Heisler focuses on recovery for personal injury victims, including those who sustain toxic torts. Call us today for a completely confidential no-cost case evaluation. If you prefer, use our online contact form.