What Does Environmental Hazard Mean?
An environmental hazard is a substance or condition that has the potential to harm the natural environment.
Substances that create an environmental hazard may be chemical, biological, or physical agents that are present due to human activity. These include pesticides, heavy metals, and toxic waste.
Not all environmental hazards are human-made, however. Some are the result of natural phenomena such as forest fires, extreme heat or cold, flooding, and drought.
Safeopedia Explains Environmental Hazard
Environmental hazards can also be understood more broadly, encompassing substances and situations that can either harm ecosystems or have adverse effects on human health. While both definitions are used in occupational health contexts, it is the narrower one (referring only to hazards that pose a threat to the natural environment) that has been adopted as part of the United Nations' Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals (GHS), which is used by occupational health agencies around the world.
Types of Occupational Environmental Hazards
The different types of environmental hazards employers should be aware of include:
- Chemical hazards (fumes, vapors, dusts, corrosives)
- Biological hazards (bacteria, viruses, molds, animals, communicable infections)
- Physical hazards (wildfires, landslides, radiation)
Health Effects Associated with Environmental Hazards
Environmental hazards can affect human health. They are known contributors to both acute illnesses (such as heat exhaustion) and chronic health conditions (such as cancers).
Health conditions that can be caused by environmental hazards include:
- Asthma and other respiratory issues due to poor air quality
- Developmental disabilities due to elevated levels of lead in blood
- Heat stroke and other heat-related illnesses due to heat waves
- Bacterial infections due to water contamination following floods
A number of other health issues have not been definitely linked to environmental hazards, but are suspected to be caused by them. Among them are:
- Bladder cancer
- Parkinson's disease
- Multiple sclerosis
- Alzheimer's disease
- Cerebral palsy
The GHS Definition of Environmental Hazard
The GHS splits environmental hazards into two categories:
- Hazardous to the aquatic environment
- Hazardous to the ozone layer
The GHS is a critical component of hazard communication standards in many parts of the world. Some countries, however, have only partially adopted it, For example, environmental hazards are not included as part of Canada’s Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System (WHMIS), which covers only physical and health hazards.