Hypotheses to explain the higher symptom rates observed around hazardous waste sites

Environ Health Perspect. 1991 Aug;94:31-8. doi: 10.1289/ehp.94-1567952.


Five studies were carried out around hazardous waste sites in California in which the main route of exposure was to low-level parts per billion concentrations of either gaseous emissions or airborne dust particles. Although there was no evidence suggesting excesses in cancer or birth defects, the total number and the prevalence of many of subjective symptoms were higher in areas near the site than in control neighborhoods. We discuss a number of causal processes that could explain these results. We conclude that a classical toxicological response and mass psychogenic illness are not valid explanations. Recall bias may explain part of the pattern. We present data from situations where stress alone from environmental anxiety has produced a similar magnitude of excess symptoms in populations. The fact that excess symptoms in waste site neighbors is found primarily in those who complain of odors or who are worried about environmental chemicals suggests the possibility that autonomic, stress-mediated mechanisms or behavioral sensitization are active in the genesis of these symptoms. A variety of confounders were controlled for. The hypothesis that chemically "acquired immune deficiency" can cause subtle symptomatology as a prodrome to subsequent serious disease has been raised in testimony at several toxic tort trials about waste sites. Although this hypothesis seems unlikely, particularly at sites such as the ones we studied with low airborne exposures, if true it would have profound regulatory implications.

MeSH terms

  • Anxiety
  • Behavior
  • Bias
  • Environmental Exposure
  • Environmental Health
  • Hazardous Waste / adverse effects*
  • Humans
  • Models, Biological
  • Odorants
  • Psychophysiologic Disorders / etiology
  • Stress, Psychological
  • Syndrome


  • Hazardous Waste