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Toxic Chemicals

The toxicity of a chemical refers to its ability to damage an organ system (kidneys, liver), disrupt a biochemical process (e.g., the blood-forming process) or disturb an enzyme system at some site remote from the site of contact. Toxicity is a property of each chemical that is determined by molecular structure. Any substance can be harmful to living things. But, just as there are degrees of being harmful, there are also degrees of being safe. The biological effects (beneficial, indifferent or toxic) of all chemicals are dependent on a number of factors.

For every chemical, there are conditions in which it can cause harm and, conversely, for every chemical, there are conditions in which it does not. A complex relationship exists between a biologically active chemical and the effect it produces that involves consideration of dose (the amount of a substance to which one is exposed), time (how often, and for how long during a specific time, the exposure occurs), the route of exposure (inhalation, ingestion, absorption through skin or eyes), and many other factors such as gender, reproductive status, age, general health and nutrition, lifestyle factors, previous sensitization, genetic disposition, and exposure to other chemicals.

The most important factor is the dose-time relationship. The dose-time relationship forms the basis for distinguishing between two types of toxicity: acute toxicity and chronic toxicity. The acute toxicity of a chemical refers to its ability to inflict systemic damage as a result (in most cases) of a one-time exposure to relative large amounts of the chemical. In most cases, the exposure is sudden and results in an emergency situation.

Chronic toxicity refers to a chemical's ability to inflict systemic damage as a result of repeated exposures, over a prolonged time period, to relatively low levels of the chemical. Some chemicals are extremely toxic and are known primarily as acute toxins (hydrogen cyanide); some are known primarily as chronic toxins (lead). Other chemicals, such as some of the chlorinated solvents, can cause either acute or chronic effects.

The toxic effects of chemicals can range from mild and reversible (e.g. a headache from a single episode of inhaling the vapors of petroleum naphtha that disappears when the victim gets fresh air) to serious and irreversible (liver or kidney damage from excessive exposures to chlorinated solvents). The toxic effects from chemical exposure depend on the severity of the exposures. Greater exposure and repeated exposure generally lead to more severe effects.

Exposure to toxic chemicals can occur by:

  • Inhalation
  • Dermal absorption
  • Ingestion
  • Injection

Inhalation and dermal absorption are the most common methods of chemical exposure in the workplace.

The following sections provide examples and safe handling guidelines for the following types of toxic chemicals:

  • Toxicants
  • Carcinogens
  • Reproductive Toxins
  • Sensitizers
  • Irritants

Minimize your exposure to any toxic chemical.

Acute Toxins

Acute toxins can cause severe injury or death as a result of short-term, high-level exposure.

Examples of acute toxins include the following:

  • Hydrogen cyanide
  • Hydrogen sulfide
  • Nitrogen dioxide
  • Ricin
  • Organophosphate pesticides
  • Arsenic

Do not work alone when handling acute toxins. Use a fume hood to ensure proper ventilation.

Chronic Toxins

Chronic toxins cause severe injury after repeated exposure.

Examples of chronic toxins include the following:

  • Mercury
  • Lead
  • Formaldehyde


Carcinogens are materials that can cause cancer in humans or animals. Several agencies including OSHA, NIOSH, and IARC are responsible for identifying carcinogens. There are very few chemicals known to cause cancer in humans, but there are many suspected carcinogens and many substances with properties similar to known carcinogens.

Examples of known carcinogens include the following:

  • Asbestos
  • Benzene
  • Tobacco smoke
  • Chromium, hexavalent
  • Aflatoxins

Zero exposure should be the goal when working with known or suspected carcinogens. Workers who are routinely exposed to carcinogens should undergo periodic medical examinations.

Reproductive Toxins

Reproductive toxins are chemicals that can produce adverse effects in parents and developing embryos. Chemicals including heavy metals, some aromatic solvents (benzene, toluene, xylenes, etc.), and some therapeutic drugs are capable of causing these effects. In addition, the adverse reproductive potential of ionizing radiation and certain lifestyle factors, including excessive alcohol consumption, cigarette smoking, and the use of illicit drugs, are recognized.

While some factors are known to affect human reproduction, knowledge in this field (especially related to the male) is not as broadly developed as other areas of toxicology. In addition, the developing embryo is most vulnerable during the time before the mother knows she is pregnant. Therefore, it is prudent for all persons with reproductive potential to minimize chemical exposure.

Reproductive Toxins
Acrylontrile Carbon disulfide
Benzene Chloroform
Benzo(a)pyrene Sodium azide
Cadmium nitrate Warafin


Sensitizers may cause little or no reaction upon first exposure. Repeated exposures may result in severe allergic reactions.

Examples of sensitizers include the following:

  • Isocyanates
  • Nickel salts
  • Beryllium compounds
  • Formaldehyde
  • Diazomethane


Irritants cause reversible inflammation or irritation to the eyes, respiratory tract, skin, and mucous membranes. Irritants cause inflammation through long-term exposure or high concentration exposure. For the purpose of this section, irritants do not include corrosives.

Examples of irritants include the following:

  • Ammonia
  • Formaldehyde
  • Halogens
  • Sulfur dioxide
  • Poison ivy
  • Phosgene


Revised November 2014