Environmental health in emergencies

Disease outbreaks caused by chemicals

There are many examples of disease outbreaks that are caused by exposure to chemicals or toxins.

Tri-ortho-cresyl phosphate is a contaminant of medicines, food and drink. It is a neurotoxin that has caused a number of outbreaks of neurological illness including the so-called ‘Jamaican ginger paralysis’.

In 2001, a series of unexpected deaths in dialysis patients in six countries was eventually shown to be caused by the contamination of the dialysis machine filters with perfluoroisobutylene.

Investigating the cause of a disease outbreak requires careful epidemiological and toxicological investigation. In some cases it may take many years of research before the etiological agent and its mechanism of toxicity are identified.

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