Glossary of Toxic Substances

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Toxic substances can be in the form of dusts, fumes, gases and vapors. And all can give rise to severe health disorders, such as poisoning, asphyxiation and cancer. Other injuries may include: severe burns, disfigurement, internal organ damage, neurological injury, birth defects, and respiratory problems.

Many exposures can happen at construction sites. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) publishes various guidelines related to chemical handling, storage and exposures. To see some examples of the hazardous chemicals that can be encountered in the workplace, click here. Other exposures can have long latency periods, which is the case with asbestos exposure.

Asbestos: Asbestos fibers are needle-like, and about 150 times thinner than a human hair. Short enough that 10,000 fibers lined up would only reach the length of an inch. They can float for days in the air and not settle on anything. When breathed into the lungs, however, they can dangerously lodge in the tiny air sacs at the end of our respiratory system. Onset of asbestosis symptoms will typically occur 20 to 40 years after exposure to asbestos and it can lead to disability and death.

Mesothelioma has a latency period of 15 to 50 years, and the threat of cancer lasts a lifetime. By the time symptoms manifest, the mesothelioma has usually spread to other areas of the body. Although treatments exist to relieve some symptoms, no cure is available.

Benzene: A colorless chemical that can be found naturally in the air, Benzene is one of the most frequently used chemicals in U.S. industry. Benzene enters the air through natural occurrences–such as forest fires and human activity from burning fossil fuels, motor vehicle exhaust and smoke from cigarettes.

Short-term exposure can lead to irritation of the respiratory tract, eyes, and skin, and can even lead to dizziness, drowsiness, and unconsciousness at higher levels. Longer-term exposure is linked to life threatening side effects such as anemia and cancer, most notably different forms of leukemia.

Chemical Spills: Hazardous chemical spills can occur while materials are in transit, whether it be from a truck accident, train derailment, or ship accident, or from accidents in factories, such as explosions or unintentional spills. Spilled toxic substances from overturned tanker trucks or factory explosions may cause not only severe injuries to anyone involved in the accident, but they also pose a severe risk of environmental and property damage to the surrounding area.

Large-scale damage resulting from a chemical spill include the most recent and horrific Gulf Oil Spill and an incident in China in which an industrial explosion caused the release of approximately 100 tons of benzene compounds into the Songhua river, prompting the shut down of the municipal water system.

Lead Poisoning: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an estimated 24 million homes in the United States still have lead-based paint inside of them. Lead is highly dangerous to people as it may accumulate in bone marrow and nerve tissue.

Even with product ban in 1978, older homes and apartment buildings are still sources of contamination. Reports estimate that approximately 400,000 children in the United States may be affected by lead poisoning. Lead poisoning can have disastrous effects on children as their bodies are in the early stages of development and lead accumulates in their nervous system, which can lead to severe developmental problems.

Silicosis: Well over 1 million people are exposed to significant amounts of silica dust each year. Silica is a compound that occurs naturally and is one of the most common minerals found in the earth’s crust. Silica is often found in rock beds and is also a key component in sand and granite.

Some of the activities and occupations with the highest risks of exposure include construction, mining, masonry work, sandblasting, glass manufacturing, stone cutting, rock drilling, and shipbuilding.

Silicosis is a disabling and possibly deadly respiratory condition that is caused by frequent exposure to silica dust or quartz (which is another name). When inhaled, the silica dust particles can become trapped in the lungs resulting in scarring or fibrosis. The scarring may reduce the lung’s capability for extracting oxygen from the air, possibly resulting in significant health problems. Silicosis may develop after extended exposure to silica dust. The most common type of silicosis that people suffer from is chronic silicosis, which typically occurs after 10 years of exposure to low levels of silica.

Teflon: Teflon, also known as polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), is a polymer of fluorinated ethylene. The chemical compound was discovered by Roy J. Plunkett of DuPont in 1938, and introduced as a commercial product in 1946.

Teflon has the lowest coefficient of friction of any known solid material. As a result, it is frequently used as a non-stick coating for cookware as well as other industrial applications. And its processing aid, perflurorooctanoic acid (PFOA), has been identified by EPA’s scientific advisory panel as a “likely carcinogen.”

Teflon coatings have been shown to break down and release toxic gases upon overheating. In recent years, under the threat of litigation, DuPont has publicly discussed the risks of using Teflon on very hot surfaces, but they have not recalled the product. PFOA does not break down in the environment or in the human body, so the material can persist in the body for many years.