FAQs on Health Effects From Chemical Exposure

Many people who work around chemicals wonder about their health. Here are a few frequently asked questions we receive from workers with potential chemical exposure.

questions about chemicals

Q: If I have acute health effects, will I later get chronic health effects?

A: Not always. Most chronic (long-term) effects result from repeated exposures to a chemical.

Q: Can I get long-term effects without ever having short-term effects?

A: Yes, because long-term effects can occur from repeated exposures to a chemical at levels not high enough to make you immediately sick.

Q: What are my chances of getting sick when I have been exposed to chemicals?

A: The likelihood of becoming sick from chemicals is increased as the amount of exposure increases. This is determined by the length of time and the amount of material to which someone is exposed.

Q: When are higher exposures more likely?

A: Conditions which increase risk of exposure include physical and mechanical processes (heating, pouring, spraying, spills and evaporation from large surface areas such as open containers), and “confined space” exposures (working inside vats, reactors, boilers, small rooms, etc.).

Q: Is the risk of getting sick higher for workers than for community residents?

A: Yes. Exposures in the community, except possibly in cases of fires or spills, are usually much lower than those found in the workplace. However, people in the community may be exposed to contaminated water as well as to chemicals in the air over long periods. This may be a problem for children or people who are already ill.

Q: Don’t all chemicals cause cancer?

A: No. Most chemicals tested by scientists are not cancer causing. It should be noted, however, that many studies indicate that even small exposures to chemicals may cause developmental and reproductive toxicity (DART) effects to both women and men during childbearing years.

Q: Should I be concerned if a chemical causes cancer in animals?

A: Yes. Most scientists agree that a chemical that causes cancer in animals should be treated as a suspected human carcinogen unless proven otherwise.

Q: But don’t they test animals using much higher levels of a chemical than people usually are exposed to?

A: Yes. That’s so effects can be seen more clearly using fewer animals. But high doses alone don’t cause cancer unless it’s a cancer agent. In fact, a chemical that causes cancer in animals at high doses could cause cancer in humans exposed to low doses.

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