Chemical exposure is a blanket term for exposure to a wide variety of substances in the home or workplace that could be toxic. Those who work in chemical and plastics manufacturing, the petroleum industry, steel and heavy metals, construction or welding are at high risk for occupational exposure. At home, potentially dangerous chemicals include cleaning products, pesticides, spray paint and drain cleaners. Those who live or work near a chemical plant, refinery or gas station may also be at risk. Though it is impossible to list every potential side effect of chemical exposure, injuries from short-term exposure may include dizziness, shortness of breath, headaches and forgetfulness. Long-term exposure may cause cancer, birth defects, damage to major internal organs, learning disabilities and chronic neurological damage.
Ailments Caused By Chemical Exposure
Chemical exposure includes many varieties of substances, including biological agents, mineral dusts, nitrogen compounds, metals, pesticides, plastics, rubber, solvents, asphyxiates and sulfur compounds.
Some of the more dangerous chemicals a person can be exposed to are as follows:
Ethylene glycol ether: A solvent used in heavy industry and during semiconductor chip manufacturing “clean rooms”.
Pentachlorophenol (PCP): First used as a domestic pesticide, but use is now restricted as a preservative for wood. It is a potential carcinogen and may cause birth defects and respiratory complications.
Chromated Copper Arsenate: Used for many of the same purposes of PCP. It contains high amounts of arsenic that is highly toxic to humans.
Trichloroethylene: Used as a cleaning solvent. It is now in many groundwater supplies and soil. It can be inhaled or consumed with water, and may cause respiratory complications, nervous system problems, organ failure and death.
The most common ailments caused by some of the 400+ regulated hazardous substances include:
Asthma – A respiratory disorder during which the chest constricts and sufferers find it difficult to breath. Asthma is often times caused by an allergic reaction.
Pneumonitis – An inflammation of the lungs. Can be caused by a virus or an allergic reaction to aspirated vomitus, ingested gasoline or other petroleum distillates, ingested or skin adsorbed pesticides, gasses from electroplating, or other irritants. It manifests itself through fever, chills, dry cough, and inability to breath, constricted airways, and fatigue.
Fibrosis – The unhealthy growth of scar tissue as a reaction to a stimulus or catalyst (usually a hazardous chemical). It is commonly located in the liver or lungs.
Chronic Bronchitis – An obstructive pulmonary disease which, to be considered chronic, must occur for over three months to years in a row. Coughing and phlegm production are common symptoms.
Cancer – Many hazardous chemicals are carcinogens in concentrated amounts, and can result in the uncontrolled abnormal growth of cells.
Neuropathy – Degeneration of the nerves resulting in pain, numbness, tingling, swelling, and muscle weakness in various parts of the body.
Parkinson’s syndrome – A central nervous system (CNS) difficulty characterized by resting tremor, muscle rigidity (including a mask-like face), slow motor movement, and a stooped, shuffling gait.
Methemoglobinemia (met-H) – Is caused by a higher than normal occurrence of methemoglobin in the blood, it results in a difficulty of oxygen transport in blood. Met-H is commonly caused by an over-exposure to nitrates.
Anemia – A deficiency of red blood cells; symptoms include feeling tired, weak, and short of breath
Dermatitis – Chronic inflammation causing swelling, pain, redness, itching, and cracking of the skin.
Chloracne – An eruption of blackheads, cysts, and pustules, caused by the over-exposure to chlorine compounds such as halogenic aromatic hydrocarbons.
Burns – Resulting from topical contact with strong acids or alkalies.
Heavy metal poisoning – Examples are an over-exposure to substances such as mercury, lead and cadmium. Can be caused by elements that are either nephrotoxins (substances harmful to the kidneys) or heptotoxins (substances harmful to the liver).
Birth Defects – Including hydrocephalus, Spina Bifida and Anencephaly.
Raynaud’s Phenomenon – A disorder that affects the blood vessels in the fingers, toes, ears, and nose. The disorder is characterized by episodic attacks, called vasospastic attacks that cause the blood vessels in the digits (fingers and toes) to constrict (narrow) and cause feelings of coolness and numbness. Raynaud’s can occur on its own, or it can be secondary to another condition such as scleroderma or lupus.
It is overwhelmingly important to pay attention to the physical manifestations of a potential overexposure to hazardous chemicals. The irreversible damage caused by high concentrations of particular substances can be life threatening, and individuals should be well informed of the risks.
More About Toxic Tort Law
Exposure to any biological or fabricated material that causes immediate or long-term adverse health effects can be described as “chemical exposure”. The area of law that addresses chemical exposure issues is termed toxic tort. A large portion of toxic tort law involves workplace hazards, but exposures to dangerous substances can occur in homes, as well as throughout entire communities.
According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), over 100,000 potentially unsafe chemicals may be present in workplace environments. OSHA defines chemicals as including “dusts, mixtures, and common materials such as paints, fuels, and solvents”. Each substance has distinctly documented safety information that is not always enough. The following provides some information on applicable legislation, government agencies and the litigious process surrounding toxic tort.
In general, the following are the guidelines/organizations that are applicable to chemical exposure issues and toxic tort:
Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 – Provides the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) the license to track, restrict or otherwise regulate risky chemicals.
Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 – The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is overseen by the Department of Labor. OSHA has set “permissible exposure limits” (PELs) for the concentration of 400 regulated hazardous substances in the workplace. These limits are based on an average amount of dangerous chemicals over an eight-hour period of time, or the effects on the skin during exposure. Regulation may differ from state to state due to OSHA approval of state-specific regulatory frameworks.