Dear EarthTalk: What are some of the most common contaminants our pets are exposed to and how can we avoid them?
—Maria R., Chicago, IL
This issue grabbed headlines when it was revealed in the May 2021 that domestic dogs and horses were suffering from health issues and premature death from exposure through drinking water to chemicals emitted by the Chemours Fayetteville Works chemical plant in Bladen County, North Carolina.
The offending chemicals—perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) that are added to everyday products to make them water, grease and stain-resistant—fall to the ground with rain. They then permeate soils and the water table for some 18 miles in every direction. Most residents of this rural area get their drinking water from private wells that do not benefit from community clean water filtration systems or standards. A court challenge by local clean water advocates prompted a local judge to order Chemours Fayetteville Works to provide local residents with water filtration systems to filter out offending chemicals. But many locals say they can’t rest easy until the factory closes altogether.
If you do live within the pollution radius of a factory, you’ll want to get your drinking water (and air quality) tested for contaminants on a regular basis to make sure you, your family members and pets aren’t getting poisoned. If the results aren’t good, it may be time to see if any neighbors are experiencing issues and start asking some questions to get to the bottom of where the pollution might be coming from.
There are of course many other threats to pets even if you don’t live near a pollution “point source.” In one study, researchers found that the brains of dogs exposed to the heavy and constant air pollution of Mexico City had significantly elevated inflammation and pathology profiles (including neurofibrillary tangles that cause Alzheimer’s in humans) compared to dogs from more rural, less polluted regions.
Since our pets spend lots of time walking and running through—not to mention rolling around in and even nibbling on—the grass, it’s not surprising that they are much more likely to pick up and ingest contaminants than their owners. If your dog or cat develops a skin rash, vomiting, diarrhea, excessive salivation, dilated pupils, lack of coordination, or respiratory difficulties, it may be related to chemical exposure. Regarding longer-term effects, one study in Massachusetts showed that dogs whose owners used pesticides in their own yards had a 70 percent higher chance of developing malignant lymphoma. Indeed, one-third of the 700 dogs in the study were diagnosed with this typically terminal canine cancer.
If your dog or cat wants to run free in a neighbor’s yard or at the park, wait 24-72 hours after the lawn in question has been treated with chemicals of any kind (fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides) to minimize exposure to and ingestion of potentially hazardous substances. You can also lobby your neighbors and local officials to give up the harsh synthetic chemicals; some will be more open to the idea than others, so make sure you have a good way to protect your pets even if your requests aren’t complied with.