About Exposure

What is Exposure?

Exposure is contact. No matter how dangerous a substance or activity, without exposure, it cannot harm you.

Amount of Exposure

Over 400 years ago, a scientist said "...nothing [is] without poisonous qualities. It is only the dose that makes a thing poison." The dose is the amount of a substance that enters or contacts a person. An important factor to consider in evaluating a dose is body weight. If a child is exposed to the same amount of chemical as an adult, the child (who weighs less) can be affected more than the adult. For example, children are given smaller amounts of aspirin than adults because an adult dose is too large for a child's body weight.

The greater the amount of a substance a person is exposed to, the more likely that health effects will occur. Large amounts of a relatively harmless substance can be toxic. For example, two aspirin tablets can help to relieve a headache, but taking an entire bottle of aspirin can cause stomach pain, nausea, vomiting, headache, convulsions or death

Routes of Exposure

There are three major means by which a toxic substance can come into contact with or enter the body. These are called routes of exposure.

Inhalation (breathing) of gases, vapors, dusts or mists is a common route of exposure. Chemicals can enter and irritate the nose, air passages and lungs. They can become deposited in the airways or be absorbed through the lungs into the bloodstream. The blood can then carry these substances to the rest of the body.

Direct contact (touching) with the skin or eyes is also a route of exposure. Some substances are absorbed through the skin and enter the bloodstream. Broken, cut or cracked skin will allow substances to enter the body more easily.

Ingestion (swallowing) of food, drink, or other substances is another route of exposure. Chemicals that get in or on food, cigarettes, utensils or hands can be swallowed. Children are at greater risk of ingesting substances found in dust or soil because they often put their fingers or other objects in their mouths. Lead in paint chips is a good example. Substances can be absorbed into the blood and then transported to the rest of the body.

The route of exposure can determine whether or not the toxic substance has an effect. For example, breathing or swallowing lead can result in health effects, but touching lead is not usually harmful because lead is not absorbed particularly well through the skin.

Length of Exposure

Short-term exposure is called acute exposure. Long-term exposure is called chronic exposure. Either may cause health effects that are immediate or health effects that occur days or years later.

Acute exposure is a short contact with a chemical. It may last a few seconds or a few hours. For example, it might take a few minutes to clean windows with ammonia, use nail polish remover or spray a can of paint. The fumes someone might inhale during these activities are examples of acute exposures.

Chronic exposure is continuous or repeated contact with a toxic substance over a long period of time (months or years). If a chemical is used every day on the job, the exposure would be chronic. Over time, some chemicals, such as PCBs and lead, can build up in the body and cause long-term health effects.

Chronic exposures can also occur at home. Some chemicals in household furniture, carpeting or cleaners can be sources of chronic exposure.

Sensitivity

All people are not equally sensitive to chemicals, and are not affected by them in the same way. There are many reasons for this.

  • People's bodies vary in their ability to absorb and break down or eliminate certain chemicals due to genetic differences.
  • People may become allergic to a chemical after being exposed. Then they may react to very low levels of the chemical and have different or more serious health effects than nonallergic people exposed to the same amount. People who are allergic to bee venom, for example, have a more serious reaction to a bee sting than people who are not.
  • Factors such as age, illness, diet, alcohol use, pregnancy and medical or nonmedical drug use can also affect a person's sensitivity to a chemical. Young children are often more sensitive to chemicals for a number of reasons. Their bodies are still developing and they cannot get rid of some chemicals as well as adults. Also, children absorb greater amounts of some chemicals (such as lead) into their blood than adults.

For More Information

Center for Environmental Health
Outreach and Education Group
Empire State Plaza-Corning Tower, Room 1642
Albany, New York 12237

518-402-7530 or 800-458-1158