Hesperian Health Guides

Exposure to chemicals

a woman sniffing at a can of cleaner while another woman shouts at her.
CAUTION! Do not sniff, taste, or touch chemicals to find out what they are.

The chemicals used in a factory can affect your health when they get onto or into your body. Chemicals in some forms are more dangerous than others. For instance, solids and heavy liquids stay in one place and are less likely to get in the air unless grinding, heating, and sawing generates dust and fumes. Powders, sprays, or gases, as well as the dust, smoke, fumes, and mists created when using some chemicals, are more dangerous because they can quickly get in the air. They are also small enough to get in the nose and lungs. As chemicals spread and settle on floors, windows, work surfaces, and inside machines, vacuums, and ventilation ducts, it is more likely that you will come in contact with them.

Signs of exposure

You can know you have been exposed to chemicals when:

  • You have irritation of the nose, throat, or lungs, or trouble breathing.
  • You feel a chemical on your skin, especially if it burns or itches. You might also get a rash or other skin problem where the chemical touched you.
  • You have a chemical taste in your mouth, either from breathing, ingesting, or absorbing it through the skin.
  • You feel the effects of the chemical, such as feeling dizzy, confused, irritable, or ill.

If you have any of these signs, get away from the chemical and tell your co-workers and supervisor there is a problem.

Since signs of many health problems take a long time to develop, especially for reproductive problems and cancers, if you are worried there is exposure, tell your co-workers and supervisor, and act to prevent the problem from getting worse.

Occupational safety and health (OSH) professionals are often asked to investigate and limit chemical exposures. When asking about chemical exposures, they should hold private interviews with several people from each factory area so no one can guess who gave what particular information.

a boss speaking to a group of workers; 3 of them respond.
My expert says there is nothing in the air. No violation of health standards. See for yourself!
Then why do we get dizzy and sick when we use the cleaner?
It smells and makes my head hurt.
Chemicals get on our hands and clothes, too!
Who knows best?

How chemicals get on or in your body

a worker cleaning a circuit board while breathing fumes from a can of solvent.

Through breathing through your nose and mouth. When you smell a chemical, you are breathing it. But some chemicals do not have any smell, or you get used to the smell and no longer notice it.

a worker using his bare hands to clean a circuit board with solvent.

Through your skin and eyes when the chemical gets on you, or through cuts on the skin. Sometimes you can see mists, droplets, fumes, and gases. If they are not removed by extractors or another type of ventilation, they can be absorbed through the skin and watery area of your eyes, as well as through the nose and mouth.

a worker eating while he has chemicals on his hands and face.

Through your mouth. This does not happen because you intend to eat it, but it can happen when the chemical is on your hands or clothes and you touch food or a cigarette that goes into your mouth. Chemical dust or a splash can get on your lips or inside your mouth. You also swallow chemicals that are already in cigarettes, food, or water. This happens more often than you would think.

Wgthas Ch8 Page 154-4.png
Most workers use more than one chemical at their workstation. Those chemicals might react with others already in the materials they are working on. When leading trainings about chemicals and health effects, keep in mind that sometimes workers’ health problems are related to the combination of many chemicals at a time — not just one!

Measuring exposure

If you get a little chemical on you and wash it off very quickly, this may not be much exposure. If you are splashed with a chemical and breathe it, this may be a lot of exposure. Different chemicals are dangerous in different amounts.

When there are accidents in factories, usually workers and employers all know there was exposure. But often the exposures that harm workers most are those that happen every day and are so routine that no one pays attention to them. And although you might be exposed to only a very small amount, if that exposure happens every day for a long time, it can cause serious problems.

a man speaking; he wears a shirt that reads, "Industry cannot decide what level is a safe level."
OSH professionals are taught that most chemicals can be used safely. They learn that people will not be harmed by a chemical if they are not exposed to too much of it. But as researchers prove that some chemicals are dangerous even at very low levels — levels that used to be considered safe — it becomes clear that some "safe use" standards were not safe at all. For example, BPA (bisphenol-A), phthalates, and lead cause harm at very low levels. As we learn more, levels considered safe will be lowered again and again. But who wants to be "safely" exposed the day before the levels change?

Your employer and your government are responsible for monitoring chemicals in the workplace and for taking action to reduce exposures that can harm people’s health. Unfortunately, many companies do not measure exposures and do not do enough to prevent them. And government agencies are often understaffed, unequipped, or too corrupt to enforce safety standards.

a man shrugging his shoulders while speaking.
The boss says it’s all safe and it won’t make us sick. But we don’t see him measuring it and we can’t do it ourselves!

For many chemicals, levels considered to be safe still hurt workers’ health. If you are worried or believe you are getting exposed to something that makes you sick, ask an OSH professional, other workers, a union or environmental group, or a health worker to help you find out as much as you can about the chemicals you work with. Many OSH professionals can tell you if they think the standard, while legal, does not protect enough, and help you track your symptoms and those of your co-workers in a health notebook. Workers who did not give up have fought employers, chemical companies, and even governments to stop the use of chemicals that harm people’s health.

This page was updated:28 Feb 2021