It's common to think that chemical hazards only exist in work settings where chemicals are used, but risk of exposure is everywhere - at home and at work. Everything, even water, can be toxic in large amounts.
Chemical exposure can lead to a number of symptoms including:
Eye, ear, nose and throat or lower respiratory track irritation
Change of consciousness.
If use of a product produces the symptoms above, you need to remove yourself from the contaminant.
The severity of injuries that can occur as a result of chemical exposure depends on the type of chemical and its state, which can be fume, gas, vapor, liquid or solid.
At home, new carpeting, paint and foam insulation can emit fumes that cause illness. Household cleaners, pesticides and fertilizers are also sources for exposure.
The majority of work-related illnesses from chemicals occur in the respiratory system due to poor air quality from volatile organic chemicals (VOCs) that may come from carpets and furnishings in an office setting, or chemicals used in a factory, laboratory or natural gas rig.
The second most common type of exposure occurs through contact and absorption through the skin, in the instance of a spill. Additionally, chemicals can be ingested when food or water is contaminated.
Exposure can happen slowly over time as well.
You may be experiencing symptoms as a result of exposure if you have asthma or other conditions that suddenly become more severe, or a new symptom that develops in conjunction with a change in environment or chemicals being used.
If the exposure is work-related, it should be treated through your employer's workers' compensation insurance at an occupational medicine facility.
Exposure in your personal life initially can be managed by your family physician with appropriate specialist referral as needed.
Symptoms from chemical exposures generally worsen over time and can lead to deterioration of health and even disability which can result in litigation. Specialized assistance is available to help employers prevent and detect opportunities for chemical exposure.
Carefully reading the label or material safety data sheet (MSDS) for chemicals being used around them at home or at work is the best way to prevent exposure. Always follow the accompanying directions and recommendations.
When handling chemicals, be aware of important differences in gloves and proper clothing and be sure to replace worn out protective gear.
Use the correct respiratory protection, and be aware that cross-contamination can occur.
When you're finished spraying the weeds, remove your shoes before going back into your home and change out of your work uniform before climbing into the family car.
Any chemical can be safe. It is up to individuals, employers and employees to ensure they are used appropriately and that proper precautions are taken to prevent exposure.
Jolly is a physician at Susquehanna Health's WorkCenter. She diagnoses and treats employee health issues due to occupational injuries and disease and is available to consult with employers for the development of awareness and prevention of conditions due to chemical exposures.