When we talk about exposure, it means that you have come into contact with a chemical and it has gotten into your body. You can be exposed to a chemical in three main ways:
Inhalation - breathing in chemical vapors or air with a chemical in it
Ingestion - swallowing a chemical in food, soil, or water
Dermal - a chemical soaking through your skin (only some chemicals like gasoline or solvents can do this)
If you are not exposed to a chemical,
it won't make you sick.
Will a chemical exposure make me sick?
Being close to a chemical source does not necessarily mean you have been exposed to the chemical. And even if you are exposed to a chemical, it may not make you sick.
Are some people more easily affected by chemicals?
Yes. Children are more sensitive to chemicals because of their small body size and because they are growing. Also, small children are more likely to come into contact with chemicals. This is because they are closer to the ground and they are more likely to put objects or their fingers in their mouths. Unborn fetuses and breastfeeding babies may be affected if their mothers come into contact with a chemical. Chemicals may also easily affect the elderly and those who have health problems.
Can a chemical harm you?
ONLY IF YOU CAN SAY “YES” TO ALL 4 QUESTIONS BELOW:
Did you breathe in the chemical, swallow it, or get it on your skin?
Can this type of contact cause harm?
Did contact happen long enough to cause harm?
Did enough of the chemical get into your body to cause harm?
Each of these questions must be considered to determine if a harmful exposure has occurred. For example, if someone swallowed some elemental mercury (the substance also known as "quicksilver"), it may not have a serious effect because elemental mercury is not well-absorbed by the digestive system. However, if the mercury sat in a warm, enclosed room, turned into vapor, and you breathed in the vapor, it wouldn't take a large amount to make you sick since mercury vapor is absorbed readily through the lungs.
When do symptoms from chemical exposures happen?
Some chemicals can cause immediate symptoms if you are exposed to a large enough dose at one time. This is called an acute exposure. Most symptoms from acute exposures to common chemicals go away when the exposure stops. For instance, exposure to paint thinner in an enclosed garage could give you watery eyes and a headache, but if you left the garage, the symptoms would likely go away and have no lasting effect.
Some chemicals can cause symptoms which occur after repeated exposure to small amounts over a long period of time. This is called a chronic exposure. For instance, if you were a construction worker who used materials with asbestos in them and inhaled asbestos fibers over many years, you would be at an increased risk of chronic lung disease. Some chronic exposure symptoms may go away once the exposure stops, but others like scarring, nerve damage, or cancer may be permanent.
Texas Department of State Health Services
Environmental and Injury Epidemiology and Toxicology
1100 West 49th Street, Austin, Texas 78756