Health Effects of Toxic Chemicals

Health Effects of Toxic Chemicals

There are many materials used in the workplace that can be hazardous. However, in order for them to affect your health, they must come into contact with the body or be absorbed into the body. When assessing the potential health effects from working with a particular material, it is necessary to understand the difference between “toxicity” and “hazard”.

  1. TOXICITY is the ability of a substance to produce an unwanted effect when the chemical has reached a sufficient concentration at a certain site in the body.

The more toxic a material is, the smaller the amount of it is necessary to be absorbed before harmful effects are caused. The lower the toxicity, the greater the quantity of it is necessary to be absorbed. Generally, the toxicity of a chemical is determined through experiments on animals (quite often rats), and measured in terms of the amount of material necessary to cause death in 50% of the test animals. These values are called LD50 (lethal dose) or LC50 (lethal concentration), and are usually given in weight of material per kg of body weight or airborne concentration of material per set time period respectively.

  1.  HAZARD is the probability that this concentration in the body will occur.

Toxicity is an inherent property of the material. A material may be very toxic, but not hazardous, if it is handled properly and is not absorbed into the body. On the other hand, a material may have a very low toxicity, but be very hazardous.


  • An open container of an acid is much more hazardous than a closed container of the same material.
  • Two liquids may possess the same degree of toxicity but present different degrees of hazard:
  • One material may be non-irritating to the eyes and nose and odourless. The other may be irritating to the eyes or respiratory system and possess a pungent odour.
  • The latter material, because of its warning properties presents a lesser degree of hazard.

In order for toxicants to affect the human system either they must cause damage to external tissues, such as the skin or eyes, or they must be able to enter the body by some mechanism.

Routes of Entry

There are three primary routes of entry into the body: ingestion, skin or eye absorption, inhalation and injection.

Ingestion- This means taking a material into the body by mouth (swallowing). Ingestion of toxic materials may occur as a result of eating in a contaminated work area.

Absorption- Substances that contact the eye and the skin may be either absorbed into the body or cause local effects. For the majority of organic compounds, the contribution from skin absorption to the total exposure should not be neglected.

Inhalation- This means taking a material into the body by breathing it in. In the lungs, very tiny blood vessels are in constant contact with the air we breathe in. As a result, airborne contaminants can be easily absorbed through this tissue. In the occupational environment, this is generally the most important route of entry.

Injection- This means taking in biological or chemical substances into the body when the skin is accidentally punctured with a sharp object (e.g. contaminated needle).

Health Effects – Chronic vs Acute

Once a toxic substance has contacted the body it may have either acute (immediate) or chronic (long term) effects.

Example: Spilling acid on your hand will cause immediate harm, i.e. a burn to the skin.

Exposure to asbestos or tobacco smoke may result in lung cancer after as much as twenty years (this is a long term effect).

Exposure – Chronic vs Acute

Exposure can be classified as chronic or acute. In chronic exposures, the dose is delivered at some frequency (daily or weekly usually) over a period of time. In acute exposures, the dose is delivered in a single event and absorption is rapid. Usually, a chronic exposure occurs at low concentration and acute exposure at high concentration.

Some materials may only cause harm if given acutely, not having any effect in the long term. Other materials may not exhibit an effect in the short term, but may cause problems after prolonged exposure.

Physiological Classification of Materials

This classification identifies toxic materials on the basis of biologic action.

Irritants – refers to some sort of aggravation of whatever tissue the material comes in contact with. e.g. ammonia, nitrogen dioxide.

Asphyxiants – exert their effects through a depletion of oxygen to the tissues e.g. simple asphyxiants – carbon dioxide, nitrogen, methane, hydrogen chemical asphyxiants – carbon monoxide, hydrogen cyanide, hydrogen sulphide.

Narcotics or Anaesthetics – the main toxic action is the depressant effect upon the Central Nervous System. e.g. – many organics, chloroform, xylene.

Systemic Poisons – the main toxic action includes the production of internal damage e.g. Hepatotoxic agents – toxic effects produce liver damage. eg. carbon tetrachloride.

e.g. Nephrotoxic agents – toxic effects produce kidney damage eg. some halogenated hydrocarbons

Carcinogens – agents/compounds that will induce cancer in humans. e.g. benzene, arsenic, inorganic salts of chromium, nickel, beryllium.

Mutagens – agents that affect the cells of the exposed people in such a way that it may cause cancer in the exposed individual or an undesirable mutation to occur in some later generation. e.g. radiation, variety of chemical agents that alter the genetic message.

Teratogens – Agents or compounds that a pregnant woman takes into her body that generate defects in the fetus e.g. Thalidomide, possibly steroids

Sensitizers – Agents that may cause allergic or allergic-like responses to occur.

After an initial exposure to a substance an individual may become sensitized to that substance. Subsequent exposures to the same substance, often at a much lower concentration than before, produces an allergic response. This response may be a skin rash (dermatitis) or an asthmatic-like attack, depending on the route of exposure. e.g. cutting oils, isocyanates in polyurethane foam operations and paint spraying operations, some laboratory solvents.

Exposure Limits