Exposure and health effects of chemicals

Every day, we are exposed to chemicals and pollutants - in our air, food and water. There are chemicals in everyday products we use at work, at home and at play. While some chemicals may be beneficial to our health, others may pose a health risk if they're not handled properly.

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Types of exposure

Air and inhalation

We take over 20,000 breaths a day. This number can be much higher for infants and children. The chemicals and pollutants we inhale can end up in our lungs and blood stream. Sometimes, we 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.

Skin and eye contact

You can be exposed to chemicals 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 our bodies. Wearing protective equipment, such as gloves and eye goggles, can protect you from direct exposure. It can also prevent you from spreading substances onto other objects and people.

Food, water, and ingestion

Many chemicals can be found in both our food and water sources. As we eat and drink, we might swallow chemicals that can harm us. However, there are actions you can take to limit your exposure, such as replacing older lead pipes or refraining from heating food in plastic containers not intended for that purpose. You can also keep your community safe by disposing of hazardous chemicals according to your municipal guidelines.

Potential health risks

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

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

Some people may be more sensitive to chemical exposure than others. Groups that may be at higher risk include children, pregnant women, seniors, people with pre-existing health conditions and Indigenous peoples.

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 are usually the result of exposure to certain chemicals over a long period of time.

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

  • 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
  • cancer

Reducing risks

You can take steps to protect yourself and your family from chemical risks:

  • Read and follow all directions when using household chemical products. If you don't understand something on the label, contact the manufacturer.
  • Open windows to provide ventilation during and after use of certain household chemical products, since some of these can release chemicals into your indoor air. However, during periods of high levels of outdoor air pollution, you should take measures to reduce the air entering your home from outside, such as closing your windows and turning on your air conditioning.
  • Keep all household chemical products out of sight and out of reach of children and animals. Make sure closures on child-resistant containers are working.
  • Consult the Air Quality Health Index, and consider adjusting outdoor activities when air quality is poor, especially if you have heart or breathing problems.
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