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Tox Town - Environmental health concerns and toxic chemicals where you live, work, and play
For Teachers - Classroom Activities and Discussion Questions

Activities and Discussion Questions

Environmental Health Education

Tox Town and other National Library of Medicine resources can help with student-friendly information on human health and the environment, plus pollution and toxic chemicals. You can also find information on global climate change, this year's Earth Day theme celebrated April 22, 2007. Students can learn about their school's indoor air quality and environment, toxic chemicals in homes and communities, and the impact of the environment on the quality of drinking water or outdoor air.

Please let us know about activities that work well in your classroom so we can share them with other teachers. Send your comments and ideas to

NLM Online: Your Health and the Environment

Online resources about your health and the environment for teachers and students at the high school and college level. These are the web sites used in the activities below: Raising Environmental Health Awareness
US - Mexico Border
  • Print and photocopy one or more of the location scenes on the Clip Art page and pass out to students.
  • Ask students to circle the places on the scene where they might encounter environmental health concerns and give examples of what they think they might find. List specific risks that those problem areas might pose, for example the river might be polluted, the school chem lab might store toxic chemicals or trucks may be spewing exhaust.
  • Then give the students time to explore Tox Town. Students can compare the concerns circled on paper with those they find illustrated in Tox Town.
  • Ask students to choose one environmental health concern from the scene and write 2-3 paragraphs about the possible effects of that concern on people's health.
  • For higher level thinking, students can predict what risks might exist in their own community (that match the scene) and where. Students could also check local government resources, newspapers, and environmental groups to learn about and verify local concerns.

Exploring Tox Town

Assign one question to each student or team and ask them to find answers using Tox Town. Students then read their question aloud, describe how they found the information and share their findings with the class. Some possible answers are included below.
  1. Find two possible health concerns in a school. What health concerns, if any, have you noticed at your school?

    Answer: Go to Town or City and click on School for links about mercury, lead in drinking water, molds, pesticides.

  2. How can my dog affect my health?

    Answer: Go to Town, City, or U.S.-Mexico border, click on the dogs or cats for info on rabies, diseases from fleas and ticks, parasites, pesticides.

  3. You're planning to buy a new car. What do you need to consider when looking for a car that is less polluting than some others might be?

    Answer: Consider low emissions and good fuel economy when buying a car. Go to any scene and click on Vehicles. Click on the "Fuel Economy Guide" and select Energy Impact Score. Enter the year, make, and model of a car to learn the annual gas consumption, carbon footprint, and air pollution score. You can also select "Green Vehicle Guide" from the list of resources under Vehicles, and enter the year, make, and model of a car to learn about the air pollution score and the greenhouse gas score. Air pollution and greenhouse gas scores range from 0 to 10, where 10 is the best score possible.

  4. Swimming pools are clean, aren't they? Find information on your health and swimming pools.

    Answer: Go to the Port scene and click on Beach for information on swimming and health. Pool water should not be swallowed. Children should take frequent bathroom breaks, babies should not swim with diapers, and people who have diarrhea should not go swimming as bacteria can be passed into the swimming pool. When swimmers swallow pool water, they can get sick. Chlorine does not work immediately and a few germs, such as Cryptosporidium, can live in pools for days.

  5. Cell phones - how can they affect my health?

    Answer: Go to City and click on Electromagnetic Fields. Some people are concerned that cell phones can cause brain cancer. Many studies have not supported that hypothesis. Some recent studies are the first to raise concerns about an increased risk of brain cancer related to cell phone use over a long period of time. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration maintains a Web site on cell phones. See

  6. Is mercury a problem in hospitals?

    Answer: Go to City, click on Hospital, and click on Chemicals in Hospitals. Mercury can be found in medical equipment, such as thermometers, and blood pressure cuffs, but many hospitals are phasing out mercury-containing equipment.

  7. I never heard of toluene. Why would teens be concerned about products with toluene?

    Answer: Go to any scene, click on All Chemicals and click on Toluene.
    Toluene is found in nail polish remover, hair spray, gasoline, antifreeze, paint, paint thinner, glue and other common products. Deliberately sniffing or huffing these products to get high cuts oxygen supply to the brain and can even result in death.

  8. My skin is dark. Why do I need to be concerned about tanning and burning? Will the sun have any health effects on me?

    Answer: Go to City, Town, U.S.-Mexico border, click on Park and click on Sun Exposure. Everyone is at risk of sun damage but people with lighter skin who burn easily and tan minimally are at higher risk. Deeply pigmented darker skin is less sensitive to sun exposure than lighter skin. Burning or tanning depends on a number of factors, including skin type, time of year, and amount of sun exposure received. Exposure to UV rays is the primary environmental factor in the development of skin cancer.

  9. I just caught some fish in a nearby lake, but a neighbor said the fish might be full of mercury. How do I know if it's okay to eat the fish?

    Answer: Go to any scene, click on All Chemicals and then click on Mercury. Fish absorb mercury from water through their gills as they feed on aquatic organisms, and mercury binds to the fish tissue. Cleaning or cooking fish does not remove mercury. Fish caught in waters with known high levels of mercury contain elevated levels of mercury. Pregnant women are especially vulnerable to high levels of mercury. Fish and shellfish are an important part of a healthy diet. Fish low in mercury include: shrimp, canned light tuna, salmon, pollock, and catfish.

  10. My house was flooded last year, and I still have mold in my house that looks like it covers about 40 square feet. How can I clean it up by myself?

    Answer: Go to City or Town, click on Homes and click on Molds. Failure to remove materials contaminated by mold can lead to long-term health risks, including disease and allergies. If the home is contaminated with mold covering more than 25 square feet, a professional contractor should be consulted.

  11. My science teacher wants me to do an Earth Day project on local brownfields and what we can do to clean them up. What's wrong with a brownfield?

    Answer: Go to City and click on Brownfields. Brownfields are property that once was used for industrial or commercial purposes that is now targeted for redevelopment. Brownfields can be abandoned factories, gas stations, or other businesses using polluted substances. Brownfields need to be cleaned up and determined to be safe from pollutants before they can be reused as housing, retail stores, and parks. For information on Coastal Brownfields, brownfields in port and harbor areas, go to the Port and click on Coastal Brownfield.

What does carbon dioxide have to do with global warming?

Carbon dioxide has been in the news as a "greenhouse gas" partly responsible for global warming. Students can learn about carbon dioxide, list possible sources of carbon dioxide emissions, both natural and man-made, and share these lists with classmates to encourage classroom discussion. Based on the classroom discussion, students can suggest possible ways to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

RESOURCES How safe is this beach?

Sometimes the local beach doesn't smell right, dead fish wash up occasionally, and there's lots of seaweed-looking growth on the water surface. Is it safe to swim there?

RESOURCES How does the beginning of the school year affect students with asthma?

In some schools, more students with asthma are absent in September and October than in other months. Ask students to find the causes, signs, and symptoms of asthma. How do kids with asthma manage their health? Based on their findings, students can suggest possible explanations for the higher number of asthma-related absences at the start of the school year. Students can share their results in a poster, paper, or class discussion.

The answer: Students may have more problems with their asthma at the beginning of the school year because they are catching colds and flu from other students. They may also have problems because they are now spending their day in school buildings that might have poor air quality. Fall allergies can contribute to asthma problems as well. This is a complex issue and the cause may be due to one or a combination of influences. See the articles listed in the section on PubMed (below) for research on this topic.


How can toxic chemicals, like toluene, in industrial landfills affect a community?

A citizen's group in a small town is concerned about toluene exposure from an abandoned industrial landfill outside the town. A committee is formed to investigate the possible causes and health effects on the community. Acting as concerned citizens, students can create a presentation for their local government identifying possible sources of the toluene and reviewing possible health risks to the community from exposure. Students can explain the difference between illegal dumps and sanitary landfills. Students can also check their own zip codes or region in TOXMAP to find out more about industrial chemicals in their own communities.

  • Tox Town. Go to the Farm neighborhood and click on the landfill. Also check out the illegal dump in the US-Mexico Border scene. Go to a Tox Town neighborhood, click on All Chemicals, and choose toluene.
  • TOXMAP Search on "toluene" to create a map showing industries in the United States that release toluene in the air, water or soil. Search by zip code, city or state to find industrial chemicals in your region.
  • Household Products Database. Find common household products containing toluene.
  • Hazardous Substances Data Bank. Find information for health professionals on the health effects of toluene.
  • PubMed.
Why do firefighters care about benzene?

A recent spill at a chemical plant exposed a number of rescue workers to benzene fumes while they were rescuing plant employees. Several were overcome by the fumes, but quickly recovered. To prevent future incidents, the fire chief formed a task force of first responders (firefighters, emergency medical technicians, haz-mat) and public health officials to report on benzene exposure. Playing the roles of task force members, students can compile information on human health effects associated with benzene exposure and examples of industries that use benzene. Student-task force members can make recommendations on how to prepare for the next incident and recommendations on best sources for chemical hazard information by referring to the same sources the professionals use.

  • Tox Town. Go to any neighborhood scene, click on All Chemicals, and click on benzene for basic information.
  • WISER (on the web at "WebWISER"). This resource is used every day in emergencies around the country. Students can go to the "substance list" to find benzene. Or check out "help identify," where first responders determine what a 'mystery' chemical might be, based on how the chemical acts and how people react to it
  • Hazardous Substances Data Bank. Find information on possible health risks of benzene. From the table of contents on the left, you can choose Human Health Effects, or scroll down to Chemical Safety & Handling which includes Fire Potential, Fire Fighting Procedures and Firefighting Hazards.
  • Haz-Map. Find information on health problems of workers exposed to benzene. Search on "firefighting" to find other chemical hazards of concern to firefighters.
  • TOXMAP. Map U.S. locations where benzene is found. Is benzene released in your neighborhood?
  • ChemIDplus. Chemical structure and properties of benzene.

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Last updated: August 02, 2007

Interactive Graphic Neighborhoods City Farm Town US - Mexico Border Port