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Chemical Exposure

Following the 1962 publication of Rachel Carson's landmark book Silent Spring, environmental toxicity captured the public's attention as a primary health threat. Carson warned people about the deadly effects of chemical pollution and her book became the catalyst for federal laws banning DDT and other harmful chemicals. In 1970, the first Earth Day and the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency set the stage for a plethora of environmental legislation on both federal and state levels. Congress approved a series of sweeping legislative measures, including the Clean Air Act (1970), the Water Pollution Control Act (1972), and the Environmental Pesticide Control Act (1972), each designed to clean up hundreds of chemicals in the environment and preclude further irreparable damage.

Hazardous chemicals also took center stage for a number of international organizations in the 1970s and 1980s. The International Programme on Chemical Safety (IPCS), for example, was established in 1980 as a joint program of three cooperating organizations-the International Labor Organization, the United Nations Environmental Programme, and the World Health Organization-to carry out and disseminate evaluations of the risk to human health and the environment from exposure to chemicals. The IPCS evaluates the risk to human health and the environment from exposure to chemicals, provides an intergovernmental mechanism for chemical risk assessment and management, establishes the scientific basis for the safe use of chemicals, and strengthens national capabilities and capacities for chemical safety. Additionally, the IPCS designs promotional materials such as the three posters below, which illustrate the relationship between toxic chemicals, health, and the environment as part of their educational division.


Multicolor poster with black and white lettering. Some publisher information and title at top of poster. Visual image is a color photo reproduction featuring two children playing at the seashore. Caption and note near bottom of photo. Additional publisher information at bottom of poster.This image, featuring two children playing in a stream, employs a common motif in public health posters -- the photographs of children are used to evoke a feeling of responsibility or accountability in the viewer. The specific message is only conveyed clearly with the combination of image and text. The viewer is encouraged to read the poster in order to discover its meaning. Even the headline -- “Let the world breathe” -- is too general to communicate the central piece of advice: “Use chemicals with care to keep air fresh and water pure.” The poster encourages behavior modification by emphasizing the consequences of complacency, not for the viewer alone but for innocent children as well.


Multicolor poster with black and white lettering. Partial publisher information and title at top of poster. Visual image is a color photo reproduction featuring two children in a garage or storage shed, attempting to open a bottle. The bottle has two labels, one for 'lemonade' and one for 'weedkiller.' Caption and note near bottom of photo. Additional publisher information at bottom of poster.In 1961, Congress authorized President John F. Kennedy to designate the third week in March as the annual National Poison Prevention Week. The Poison Prevention Week Council was organized to coordinate this annual event and encourage local communities to raise awareness of the dangers of accidental poisoning and to take preventative measures as warranted. This IPCS poster is part of this tradition of accidental poisoning prevention. In the photograph, two children crouch beside a window, preparing to open a bottle of weed killer. One child looks back over her shoulder, evoking a sense of helplessness. The message is clearly and prominently presented above the photograph, “Children At Risk!” At the bottom of the poster, viewers are encouraged to “Store chemicals safely out of reach of children.”


Multicolor poster with black and white lettering. Some publisher information and title at top of poster. Visual image is a color photo reproduction featuring two girls sharing an apple and an ice cream cone. Caption and note near bottom of photo. Additional publisher information at bottom of poster.Since the 1950s, the WHO has supported research on the safe use of food additives and the evaluation of the carcinogenic hazards presented by imperceptible chemicals present in food at very low levels. Additives are non-nutritive substances added intentionally to food, generally in small quantities, to improve its appearance, flavor, texture, or storage properties. Imperceptible chemicals include a number of environmental contaminants that may get into food from packaging or residues from the use of solvents, veterinary drugs, or pesticides. This poster uses the same motif of the two posters above, featuring a photograph of children as symbolic motivation for responsible and accountable adult behavior. When combined with the textual message that, “Food additives and pesticides should be used with care,” the photo of the children, sharing an apple and an ice cream, is designed to encourage reflection on the part of the viewer. The headline, “Acceptable Daily Intake!” refers to the amount of a particular chemical found in food that, it is believed, can be safely consumed on a daily basis over a lifetime without harm. The ADI is widely used by organizations such as the WHO as a means of achieving some uniformity of approach in regulatory control. The ADI is designed to ensure that the actual human intake of a substance is well below toxic levels.


The posters below are part of a very different kind of public health campaign inspired by toxic chemicals. Created by the Texas Prevention Partnership (TPP), which was founded in 1990 by the Entertainment Industries Council and Harvey Weiss, the posters address the alarming trend of “huffing” -- the inhaling of CFCs, Freon, household cleaning products, and other toxic chemicals for a quick high. At the time, inhalant abuse was gaining popularity at a staggering rate in the state of Texas and surrounding areas. Following a massive campaign that included the distribution of bilingual posters and radio and television public service announcements, Texas saw an immediate decline in the number of deaths from inhalant abuse, and between 1990 and 1994 there was a reduction of more than 32% in elementary school inhalant use and a reduction of about 20% at the high school level.This work inspired TPP to found and lead the National Inhalant Prevention Coalition.

Correction fluid stains the heart area of an adolescent boy's sweatshirt. Below the boy is the title Sniffing Correction Fluid Can Stop Your Heart.This poster is part of a series that warns adolescents about the serious dangers of inhalants. The posters use black and white photographs of representatives from the target audience, a common motif in public health advertisements. The inhalant medium, such as correction fluid, markers, or spray paints, is symbolically used to whiteout, color, or coat the part of the body damaged by the fumes. In this dimly lighted photograph, for example, the adolescent boy is distinguished by a white spot on his sweatshirt, which symbolizes the accompanying admonition, “Sniffing correction fluid can stop your heart.” The caption at the bottom of the poster warns, “If you sniff to get high, you're inhaling poisons that do definite damage. So stop. Before your heart does.”


Red magic marker is scribbled on the forehead of a boy. Below the boy is the title Sniffing Markers Destroys Your Brain.The adolescent boy in this photograph is distinguished by the red magic marker scribbled on his forehead. The image works effectively as a visual representation of the textual message in the title, which warns plainly, “Sniffing markers destroys your brain.” Accompanied by the caption, “Sniffing stuff like spray paint or markers can cause brain damage, lung damage, even death,” the poster succinctly and symbolically expresses the risks associated with the inhalant.


The lungs of an adolescent girl are dripping with orange paint. Below the girl is the title Sniffing Spray Paint Destroys Your Lungs.Repeating the motif in the series, this image features an adolescent girl whose lungs are outlined with dripping orange paint. The title, “Sniffing spray paint destroys your lungs,” is accompanied by the warning designed to challenge the misguided notion that inhalants are harmless. The caption warns, “Sniffing stuff like markers or spray paint can kill you. The first time, the second time, even the hundredth time.”


The blurred face of an adolescent. The right side discusses things to know about sniffing inhalants in black writing on a red background.This poster is part of a series designed to introduce parents to the problem of huffing. Employing an eye-catching graphic layout that contrasts black and white photography with bright colors, the central textual message is symbolically placed over the blocked-out nose of the model, informing the viewer, “We'd like to introduce you to the cocaine of the '90s. Your child may already be familiar.” The picture caption informs the parent, “one in four kids has done it by seventh grade” and that “anytime these products are 'huffed,' they can kill.”


A close-up of a man's face whose eyes are covered with a black strip on the left side of the poster. The right side discusses things to know about sniffing inhalants in black writing on a yellow background..The title message in this poster, covering the eyes of the model, informs parents, “Unless you know what to look for, the signs of sniffing inhalants are almost invisible.” The blackened strip over the eyes in the photograph symbolizes how parents might be blind to the problem. The picture caption identifies signs and symptoms of inhaling chemical fumes, reminding parents that one of four kids has abused them by seventh grade. The viewer is advised to “face this problem with both eyes open.”


The face of an adolescent on the left side of the poster.The right side discusses things to know about sniffing inhalants in black writing on an orange background.Also designed to inform parents, the self-referential message in this poster notifies the viewer, “This ad will tell you things about sniffing inhalants your child probably won't.” The problem with ignoring or denying the extent of the risk is represented by the blackened out title over the mouth of the model. The picture caption informs the parent about the popularity of inhaling fumes and recommends calling the toll-free phone number or asking their child, because, “They may know more than they are telling.”



Environmental Health: Introduction < Lead Poisoning < Asbestos < Air Pollution < Chemical Exposure