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How Do Environmental Toxins Affect Your Bones?

by Devin Reese -- Jan 12, 2016
Devin Reese, smiling

Devin is the lead digital science writer for the Q?rius website. She writes and gathers media for the Smithsonian Science How? webcast series,...

Skeleton parts from the Smithsonian's physical anthropology collection. Smithsonian photo by Jennifer Renteria.
Skeleton parts from the Smithsonian's physical anthropology collection. Smithsonian photo by Jennifer Renteria.

Did you know that you look the way you do because of the environment you grew up in? Of course, the genes you inherited from your parents play a role in your appearance — genes for height, bone structure, hair, eyes, or dimples. But scientists who study bones are finding that environment matters, too.

Physical anthropologists analyze human bones to learn more about human variation, about what makes us the same or different. Collections of bones in museums can provide important material for study. Modern techniques such as CT scanning and mass spectrometry reveal details of bones, such as their internal structure and chemical composition.

It turns out that environment, which can be everything from what you eat to what you breathe, affects the skeleton as it develops. Our skulls and bodies may get smaller, our teeth more brittle, or our bones less durable if we are exposed to certain toxins. Looking back in time, anthropologists are diagnosing the range of toxins people have been exposed to and their possible effects on development, growth, and health.

Toxins may come from natural sources, such as minerals in the water or molecules in the air. They are increasingly coming from human sources — from the manufacture and use of products we bring into our lives.

What are scientists finding out about environmental impacts on bones? Find out more in a "Smithsonian Science How" webcast video, How Bones Reveal Environmental Health, in which Physical Anthropologist Dr. Sabrina Sholts from the National Museum of Natural History discusses and answers questions. Get teaching resources to support your webcast experience.

 

 

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