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Toxic Chemicals

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The toxicity of a chemical refers to its ability to damage an organ system (kidneys, liver), disrupt a biochemical process (e.g., the blood-forming process) or disturb an enzyme system at some site remote from the site of contact. Toxicity is a property of each chemical that is determined by molecular structure. Any substance can be harmful to living things. But, just as there are degrees of being harmful, there are also degrees of being safe. The biological effects (beneficial, indifferent or toxic) of all chemicals are dependent on a number of factors.

For every chemical, there are conditions in which it can cause harm and, conversely, for every chemical, there are conditions in which it does not. A complex relationship exists between a biologically active chemical and the effect it produces that involves consideration of dose (the amount of a substance to which one is exposed), time (how often, and for how long during a specific time, the exposure occurs), the route of exposure (inhalation, ingestion, absorption through skin or eyes), and many other factors such as gender, reproductive status, age, general health and nutrition, lifestyle factors, previous sensitization, genetic disposition, and exposure to other chemicals.

The most important factor is the dose-time relationship. The dose-time relationship forms the basis for distinguishing between two types of toxicity: acute toxicity and chronic toxicity. The acute toxicity of a chemical refers to its ability to inflict systemic damage as a result (in most cases) of a one-time exposure to relative large amounts of the chemical. In most cases, the exposure is sudden and results in an emergency situation.

Chronic toxicity refers to a chemical's ability to inflict systemic damage as a result of repeated exposures, over a prolonged time period, to relatively low levels of the chemical. Some chemicals are extremely toxic and are known primarily as acute toxins (hydrogen cyanide); some are known primarily as chronic toxins (lead). Other chemicals, such as some of the chlorinated solvents, can cause either acute or chronic effects.

The toxic effects of chemicals can range from mild and reversible (e.g. a headache from a single episode of inhaling the vapors of petroleum naphtha that disappears when the victim gets fresh air) to serious and irreversible (liver or kidney damage from excessive exposures to chlorinated solvents). The toxic effects from chemical exposure depend on the severity of the exposures. Greater exposure and repeated exposure generally lead to more severe effects.

Exposure to toxic chemicals can occur by:

  • Inhalation
  • Dermal absorption
  • Ingestion
  • Injection

NOTE: Inhalation and dermal absorption are the most common methods of chemical exposure in the workplace.

The following sections provide examples and safe handling guidelines for the following types of toxic chemicals:

  • Toxicants
  • Carcinogens
  • Reproductive Toxins
  • Sensitizers
  • Irritant

IMPORTANT: Minimize your exposure to any toxic chemical.

Acute Toxins

Acute toxins can cause severe injury or death as a result of short-term, high-level exposure.

Examples of acute toxins include the following:

  • Hydrogen cyanide
  • Hydrogen sulfide
  • Nitrogen dioxide
  • Ricin
  • Arsenic

Do not work alone when handling acute toxins. Use a fume hood to ensure proper ventilation.

Chronic Toxins

Chronic toxins cause severe injury after repeated exposure.

Examples of chronic toxins include the following:

  • Mercury
  • Lead
  • Formaldehyde