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How are people commonly exposed to chemical hazards?

Hazardous chemicals are all around you. Nearly every day, something toxic to humans is in the news. One day it's the talcum powder that families have used for generations on babies -- the next it's the romaine lettuce in your salad.

Essentially, a hazardous chemical has three basic paths it can take from its source to the point where you're exposed to it:

  • It can be swallowed
  • It can be inhaled
  • It can touch your skin

Sometimes chemical exposures involve more than one exposure pathway from the source to the point of contact with a victim. It's important to recognize that because otherwise you can fail to treat an exposure as seriously as you need to otherwise.

Something that isn't that dangerous when it comes into contact with your skin, might be absolutely toxic if you ingest even a tiny amount! For example, artists often get turpentine on their hands when they clean their brushes and it does them no real harm. However, swallowing turpentine can be fatal and inhaling the fumes can create intoxication or hallucinations.

Similarly, lead paint doesn't really do any harm if you just touch it. However, when paint chips get eaten by small children or ground into the dirt of a family's vegetable garden, the ingested lead becomes toxic.

If you suspect that you've been exposed to a toxic chemical that's made you sick, you may have a hard time identifying the source of your problems. You need to examine all the common carriers of chemicals, including the water you drink, the food you eat, the air you're breathing and the dust or dirt that's all around.

Never disregard the possibility that a substance that's safe through one exposure pathway -- like touch -- is safe when it comes through another exposure pathway, like ingestion or inhalation. Keep in mind, also, that different people have unique responses to toxins. An unsafe chemical that kills one person may only make most other people sick.

If you're concerned about the possibility that exposure to a hazardous chemical is behind your health issues, take a good look at what's coming along those exposure pathways at you and talk it over with your doctor today.

Source:, "Hazardous Substances and Sites," accessed May 16, 2018

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