Toxic substances surround us at home, at work, in our vehicles and, potentially, when we're just walking down a street. Modern life, with all its conveniences, isn't possible without toxic substances such as plastics, adhesives, fire resistant material and chemicals. Whether you are injured by a toxic substance depends on a number of issues. What may injure you may not injure others.
What is a toxic substance?
It's something that's poisonous or can cause negative health effects. When you think of a toxic substance, you may think of a chemical plant or what's used in a factory. They also include household cleaners, prescription and over-the-counter drugs, gasoline, alcohol, pesticides, fuel oil and cosmetics. Depending on the conditions, any chemical could be toxic or harmful.
Substances can be toxic because they can harm you when they enter or contact your body. Drinking something may cause you to be violently ill. Another substance may burn your skin. A substance may be toxic but not cause you to feel any immediate impact. Exposure over time may gradually result in physical effects and medical conditions. A toxic substance may also be hazardous because it is flammable or might explode.
Some substances are more toxic than others. The level of toxicity is described by the effects it causes and its potency.
- Effects: Chemical A may cause you to vomit, but won't cause a long-term problem like cancer. You may not notice ingesting Chemical B, but it could cause cancer years later.
- Potency: The strength of a substance is a measure of its toxicity. The more potent it is the more dangerous it is. You could be splashed with one chemical with no effect, while another could cause severe burns.
The potency and toxicity of a chemical are affected by how it breaks down in the human body. After entering the body, the chemical structure may change or be metabolized into a substance that's more or less toxic. Outside the body it may be relatively harmless, but after it's changed inside the body it may cause organ damage, or it may be easily eliminated by the body.
How can I be exposed to a toxic substance?
There are normally three ways you can be harmed by a toxic substance.
- Inhalation or breathing in toxic gases, vapors, dusts or mists. It enters into your body, irritating your nose, air passages and lungs. The particles can lodge in the airways of your body or be absorbed by your lungs into the bloodstream. Your blood would then carry these substances to the rest of the body.
- Ingestion or swallowing of substances puts them into your digestive system. Chemicals may be in or on your food, utensils or hands and can be swallowed. Children are at greater risk of ingesting toxic substances in dust or the soil because they often put their fingers or other objects in their mouths. Substances may be absorbed into the blood and transported to the rest of the body.
- Direct, physical contact with the skin or eyes is a route of exposure. Some substances may get on your skin, either as a fluid or a mist, and enter the bloodstream. Broken, cut or cracked skin can allow substances to enter your body more easily.
A substance may not cause a problem if you're exposed one way (you touch it) but be very harmful if you're exposed another way (you breathe it in).
How much of a toxic substance is dangerous?
It all depends on the toxicity and how sensitive you are to the substance.
A couple things to consider are the ...
- Dose: The amount that enters or contacts you. How dangerous a dose may be depends on your weight. An amount may be very dangerous for a child but not cause a problem for a large adult. The higher the dose, the more likely harm will be done.
- Exposure medium: We're exposed through the air we breathe, the food or water we drink or the water we bathe in, which are all mediums which contain the substance. The amount of the substance in the medium is its concentration.
You can calculate your dose by multiplying the concentration of the substance times the amount of the medium.
Other things to look at when determine how much of the toxic substance you've been exposed to is the length of your exposure. If it was short-term, it's called acute exposure; long-term exposure is chronic exposure. Either can cause health effects that may be immediate or may not happen for a long time.
Is it certain I'll be harmed by a toxic substance?
There are many substances that will harm anyone who comes into contact with it. The harm caused depends in part on how sensitive you are. What may cause you severe problems may be a minor irritation to someone else.
All of us aren't equally sensitive to toxic substances, and we're not all affected by them in the same way.
- We all differ in our ability to break down or eliminate something, because of genetic differences.
- You may become allergic to something after exposure, which could cause a minor or severe physical reaction. A bee sting will cause a painful welt for most people, but bee venom may cause such an overwhelming allergic response in others that it is lethal.
- Age, illness, overall physical health, diet, alcohol use, pregnancy and drug use can impact your sensitivity to a chemical.
How might I be harmed by a toxic substance?
An exposure to a toxic substance may injure you directly at the site of contact (local effect) or somewhere else in your body (systemic effect). The effect may be immediate, delayed or both. Toxic substances can affect any part of your body ranging from your brain to your respiratory, digestive or reproductive system. Some chemicals harm whatever they contact, while others spread throughout your body, perhaps targeting a particular organ like your liver.
Delayed health effects could take months or years to present themselves and can be caused by acute or chronic exposure. This delay between exposure and the appearance of health effects is called the latency period. These delayed effects may be reversible or permanent (the harm continues after exposure stops).
If you've been injured by a toxic substance, it may take some time to be properly diagnosed and determine the cause. Hopefully, if you can stay away from the substance, your health will improve. Depending on what substance you've been exposed to, how seriously it affects you and how easily it can be shown that there's a link between the exposure and your health being impacted, you may have legal recourse to seek compensation for your injuries.
Exposure to toxic substances is a fact of life. Once we understand the risks of the harm they can do, we may be able to take precautions and lower the chances of suffering physical harm caused by the things that make modern life possible.