Exposure and health effects of chemicals

Exposure to chemicals and pollutants can have short- and long-term effects on your health. Learn about the types of exposure, the factors that affect the risk to your health and the effects of chemical exposure. 

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Types of exposure to chemicals and pollutants

There are 3 ways to be exposed to chemicals and pollutants:

  • inhaling (breathing in)
  • absorption (skin and eye contact)
  • ingesting (eating or drinking)

Inhaling (breathing in)

You are exposed to chemicals and pollutants when you inhale (breathe in). You take over 20,000 breaths a day. This number can be much higher for infants and children. The chemicals and pollutants you inhale can end up in your lungs and blood stream. Sometimes, you can smell or taste harmful chemicals, but it isn't always so easy. Some chemicals, like radon or carbon monoxide, are odourless, tasteless and invisible.

Absorption (skin and eye contact)

You can be exposed to chemicals and pollutants by coming into contact with them through your skin and eyes. These organs can be more sensitive to chemicals and may react more quickly than the rest of your body.

Ingesting (eating or drinking)

You’re exposed to chemicals and pollutants when you eat and drink. Chemicals and pollutants are found in both our food and water sources.

Potential health effects

Accidents or incorrect use of household chemical products may cause immediate health effects, such as skin or eye irritation or burns, or poisoning.

There can also be longer-term health effects from chemicals. When these occur, they’re usually the result of exposure to certain chemicals over a long period.

Depending on the chemical, longer-term health effects might include:

  • cancer
  • organ damage
  • weakening of the immune system
  • development of allergies or asthma
  • reproductive problems and birth defects
  • effects on the mental, intellectual or physical development of children

Follow these tips to lower your exposure and help protect yourself and your family from chemicals and pollutants.

Factors that affect health risks of chemicals and pollutants

The health risks of chemicals and pollutants depend on several factors, including:

  • the amount you're exposed to
  • the type of chemical or pollutant
  • when and how long you’re exposed
  • your age and general state of health
  • how you're exposed (through air, products, food, water and soil)

People that may be more sensitive to or more harmed by exposures from chemicals and pollutants include:

  • children
  • seniors
  • pregnant people
  • Indigenous Peoples

What we are doing about chemicals in Canada

In 2006, we launched the Chemicals Management Plan (CMP) to protect people in Canada and the environment from the harmful effects of chemical substances.

Learn about how we conduct chemical risk assessments to determine whether substances pose a risk to humans or the environment.

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