Many chemicals have properties that make them hazardous to humans. A chemical is assigned hazard status after extensive, peer-reviewed research supports its dangers. When working with chemicals that present documented risks, you should check the container for hazard statements and labels with pictograms communicating the risks.
The literature on hazardous chemicals is always growing. Compounds newly synthesized in labs or derived from other chemicals could pose unknown hazards and should be handled with caution. All untested chemicals could be potentially harmful, and you should treat accidental exposure with the highest standards of care.
Learn more about the signs and symptoms of chemical exposure.
What Is Chemical Exposure?
Chemical exposure occurs when someone comes into contact with a hazardous chemical. Symptoms of chemical exposure range from mild to severe, depending on the specific circumstances.
These are the most common ways people are typically exposed to harmful chemicals:
- Ingestion through eating: When food is stored or consumed in a space with chemicals, this could lead to exposure. Avoid eating on a job site where chemicals are present. Injestion can also happen if your hands contact a chemical, and you eat without washing first.
- Ingestion through drinking: Uncovered beverages, fountains and local water supplies are vulnerable to contamination. Some chemicals remain hazardous to humans even after contaminated water is boiled. Avoid drinking around chemicals or in laboratories where unknown chemicals are used.
- Inhalation: Working around airborne chemicals in the form of a gas, mist or dust without a mask or other equipment can lead to chemical inhalation. You can also inhale the particles that settle onto cigarettes.
- Eye contact: This can happen when you aren’t wearing proper eye protection or by touching or rubbing your eyelid after working with chemicals. Wearing gloves and following sanitation protocols can prevent eye contact.
- Skin contact: You can experience skin contact from a cut in your hazmat suit or following a spill or leak incident.
Chemicals commonly associated with hazardous chemical exposure include:
- Chlorine: Ammonia and bleach generate a toxic chlorine gas with a strong odor. Chlorine gas can be lethal when inhaled. Gaseous poisoning causes respiratory symptoms like cough, pneumonia and difficulty breathing. If ingested, chlorine can cause burning, swelling and pain of the digestive tract, vomiting and bloody stools.
- Ammonia: With ammonia, chemical inhalation symptoms include cough, chest pain or tightness and difficulty breathing. If it gets into the eyes, it can cause blindness. It can also burn the skin in high concentrations.
- Nitrogen dioxide: Inhalation of any nitrogen oxide chemical can cause a rapid pulse, chest congestion and difficulty breathing.
- Arsenic: Chemical ingestion symptoms from acute arsenic poisoning include gastrointestinal distress with vomiting, abdominal pain and diarrhea, but low levels of exposure are usually asymptomatic. Inorganic arsenic is a carcinogen that is common in the earth’s crust and sometimes contaminates water supplies.
- Lead: Even low levels of lead exposure are linked to symptoms of chemical poisoning over a prolonged period. The developmental symptoms include forgetfulness in adults and delayed development in children.
Detecting Chemical Exposure
It can be difficult to determine if symptoms are related to chemical exposure without undergoing tests. Many associated symptoms overlap with other illnesses or conditions, and it’s vital to let a medical professional determine the diagnosis. If you or someone else has knowingly been exposed to hazardous chemicals or if concerning chemical toxicity symptoms present, seek immediate medical care. The following information is not a replacement for professional medical advice:
You might notice a chemical’s effects during or immediately after exposure. How long it takes for symptoms to occur depends upon:
- Toxicity of the chemical: Some chemicals are highly toxic, whereas others pass quickly through most people’s systems without causing significant problems.
- Concentration of the chemical: How much of the agent did you ingest, inhale or contact?
- Type of exposure: Symptoms also vary depending on how contact is made, such as through inhalation, ingestion or touching.
- Duration of exposure: The length of time you spend around the chemical also influences your chance of experiencing severe illness.
- Possible interactions: Interactions can occur between different chemicals and your medications.
- Biological factors: Your weight and cardiovascular health will influence your tolerance.
Short-term effects of chemical exposure manifest as symptoms such as:
- Burning or irritation
- Blood in sputum
- Rash and hives
- Blurred vision
Long-term health effects are serious consequences of exposure to hazardous chemicals. If you or those around you experience the following symptoms over a prolonged period, it is best to speak with a medical health professional:
- Organ damage
- External scar tissue
- A weakened immune system
- Development of new allergies or asthma
- Birth defects and infertility
- Delayed development in children
How Do You Test for Chemical Exposure?
If you are concerned that you might have been exposed to chemicals at your workplace, school, home or while traveling out of the country, prepare to detail your possible contact with a medical health professional. Testing services range from diagnostic labs that focus on a specific system, such as a brain SPECT scan, to services that analyze your whole body, like thermography.
Some of the noninvasive tests you might receive, depending on the type of exposure, include the following:
- Blood, hair or urine tests measure the level of toxicity in your body.
- Heart Rate Variability tests evaluate your overall cardiovascular fitness.
- Blood labs check for immune dysregulation.
- Nutritional analyses evaluate your gastrointestinal system.
- Skin tests measure your skin sensitivity and allergy responses.
If your test results come back positive, you will then start treatment for chemical exposure.
Where Does Chemical Exposure Happen?
Some chemicals harmful to humans occur naturally in the earth and leak into the groundwater or get inhaled as dust. Others you might encounter at a job site, and their exposure is caused by sources such as:
- Landfills: Improperly disposed of hazardous wastes can leak out of landfills to contaminate the environment.
- Incinerators: The flue gas from incinerated wastes can contain hazardous chemicals.
- Tanks: These are the origin point of some chemical leaks.
- Drums: The drum must be cleaned after emptying to prevent cross-contamination with hazardous chemicals.
- Factories: If dumped improperly, industrial wastes can contaminate the air, water and land.
How Do I Prevent Chemical Exposure?
You can prevent exposure to toxic chemicals by following all boil orders at home and hazard protocols at work or school. If your workplace involves handling or disposing of hazardous chemicals, here are some safety tips for limiting your exposure:
- Limit skin contact by wearing protective equipment and sealing all containers.
- Work on rotation with other employees to limit your exposure, as per protocol.
- Never eat, drink or smoke at a job site where hazardous chemicals are present.
Earn a Certificate From Hazmat School
Want to limit your exposure to hazardous chemicals? When you take a Hazmat course with us, you will learn about harmful substances, how they are classified and how to handle and dispose of them safely.