Hesperian Health Guides

Health problems caused by chemicals

Chemicals affect people in different ways. Some people might have headaches, dizziness, skin rashes, and other short-term problems right away. Others develop problems that do not show up right away, or happen inside the body where you cannot see or feel them. Some chemicals may cause only one type of health problem, while others may cause several types of problems.

Acute health effects

a worker who has gotten acid on his arm.
Acute effects happen right away.

When a chemical touches your skin or enters your nose, mouth, or belly, it can cause health problems right away. This is called an acute effect.

Burns, trouble breathing or seeing, coughing, feeling dizzy or fainting are examples of acute effects. Acute health effects should be treated quickly to prevent long-term damage.

Chronic health effects

a woman lying in a hospital bed.
Chronic effects take a long time to show.

When chemicals get on or inside your body for many months or years, they can cause chronic health problems. Getting exposed to a lot of a chemical all at once can also cause chronic health problems.

Cancer, liver and kidney damage, and nervous system illness and brain damage are examples of chronic problems. They can take months or years to develop. Some chronic problems are treatable (some cancers) or manageable (kidney damage). Some chronic problems can be permanent (nerve and brain damage).

Tell your health workers about the chemicals you use

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If you go to a health worker for a problem caused by chemicals, try to bring the label from the chemical container, or write down the name of the chemical or the product. Describe what the chemical looks like, how it smells, and what it is used for. Explain why you think the chemical is causing your illness or injury. Even though most doctors do not know much about chemicals, they do have access to resources to learn about their health effects.

Chemicals irritate skin, eyes, nose, and throat

When you work with chemicals, your eyes might get red and itchy. You might get a skin rash, sneeze or cough, or have a sore throat, runny nose, or difficulty breathing at or after work. The irritation usually improves when you are away from the chemical. Irritation can be the first sign you are being harmed by a chemical. To find out more about the chemicals in your workplace, see Appendix B: Common chemicals and materials.

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Record rashes, sore throat, and other problems in your health notebook, noting when they started, when they got better or worse, and anything that might help you find out what chemical caused them.

What to do if you have a rash

Skin rashes are uncomfortable and can be a sign of health problems caused by chemicals. Tell your employer if chemicals at work are causing problems, and see a health worker. If you continue to be exposed, you will continue to suffer.

To reduce some of the problems caused by a rash:

a woman rubbing lotion on her hands.
Rub olive or another safe oil or lotion into skin after you wash to prevent dry or cracked skin.
  • Cover the irritated skin to keep the chemical liquid or mist away from your skin. Gloves might help, but make sure you are not allergic to latex gloves.
  • Wash your hands with mild soap and water. Strong soaps and chemical cleaners can irritate or damage your skin.
  • After washing hands, put on a protective cream or lotion before and after work, and during your lunch break. Try a lotion containing antihistamine or cortisol to reduce itching and redness. Unfortunately, after a while these creams stop working.
  • Make a compress using oatmeal water. Boil oatmeal or another starch in water and let it cool. Dip a clean cloth in the water and apply where it is itchy. Ask people in your community if they know of other remedies.
  • Wear loose clothing that will not rub against the rash but will keep dust, chemicals, and germs off it, unless you work around machines with moving parts that could catch the cloth. The rash will heal better with fresh air, so uncover it when you get home.
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Chemical burns

Mild chemical burns make the skin red but heal quickly. Serious burns cause blisters. Severe burns can go through the skin, such as burns from concentrated bleach or ammonia. Burns from hydrofluoric acid do not show or hurt right away, but burn deeply. Some burns make the skin feel cold and numb, for example, burns from dopant gases.

If you get splashed with even a small amount of a chemical, wash it off immediately, rinse with clean water for 15 minutes, and remove and replace your protective equipment and clothing.

Chemicals cause allergies

An allergy is when your body reacts to a chemical by developing skin rashes, eye or nose irritation, itching, eyes that water, or coughing or breathing problems. An allergic reaction to a chemical starts after you begin working with it and often improves when you stop using it. Other workers in your work area might not have a reaction, while you do. Allergies can develop at any time.

Once you are allergic to a chemical, you will always be allergic to it. A chemical allergy gets worse if you continue using the chemical and it can kill if you do not get immediate medical help. A worker who develops an allergy should be given a different job that will not harm him. He should not be fired.

If you develop an allergy
a man coughing.

At the first sign of an allergic reaction, talk to your supervisor.

Ask to switch to a different job where you are not exposed to the chemical you are allergic to. If you cannot change jobs, ask your employer for protective equipment (see Chapter 18: Personal protective equipment).

Diphenhydramine (Benadryl) or another antihistamine can help calm an allergic reaction quickly.

Seek medical attention. The health worker might give you emergency medicine, for example, a salbutamol inhaler, in case you have an asthma attack or another allergic reaction.

See Where There is No Doctor, page 167, for information about what to do in case of an asthma attack and how to treat asthma.
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Chemicals cause asthma and other breathing problems

Asthma happens when the breathing tubes of the lungs are inflamed, making it difficult to get enough air. Shortness of breath, tightness in the chest, and wheezing are all signs of asthma. Asthma can be a short-term health problem that stops when you are away from the substance that causes it. But most asthma is chronic, meaning it will last a long time, perhaps your whole life.

Some people are born with asthma, others develop it from allergies, and some get it on the job. Breathing small particles of materials used in factories, such as cotton, sand, epoxy resins, isocyanates, and some dyes and chemicals can cause asthma. If you have asthma, breathing these materials worsens it.

Chemicals harm internal organs

Some chemicals slowly poison and destroy specific parts of the body, such as the brain, nerves, liver, kidneys, or lungs. Swallowing or breathing some chemicals can cause immediate poisoning or burns inside the body. They can kill you if you do not get medical help right away. Other chemicals can cause slow poisoning over time that can make you very ill and kill you. Chemicals can also weaken your body’s ability to resist infections and other illnesses.

a woman and a man speaking; they wear shirts with body parts drawn on them; arrows indicate where chemicals can damage the body.
The fumes that come off the soles make me dizzy and give me a headache.
Is there any place in the body safe from chemicals?
HF and fluorocarbons can cause irregular heartbeats — when the heart speeds up or slows down.
Many chemicals can harm the digestive system, and some cause cancer.
PERC and azo dyes can cause bladder cancer.
Most chemicals harm your breathing, and some, like benzene, cause lung edema, when fluid fills up the lungs.
Dopant gases poison the liver and kidneys.
Many metals can cause reproductive health problems such as making it hard to get or stay pregnant, or hurting a baby inside the womb.
Making a map of the body can help workers see how chemicals harm the organs inside the body.

Chemicals cause sexual and reproductive health problems

Most women can get pregnant, have healthy pregnancies, and deliver healthy babies. But chemicals used in the workplace can cause different kinds of reproductive health problems for both men and women. Some chemicals cause only one kind of problem, others can cause several.

Problems with menstruation: One of the first signs that chemicals may be harming her reproductive system is when a woman’s menstruation changes. Irregular periods (no period, too few, or too many), when she was regular before, is a sign of problems. Too much stress and other social dangers can also lead to changes in menstruation.

Problems with sex: Some chemicals lessen the desire in both men and women to have sex. They can also lead to problems for men in getting an erection.

Fertility problems: Some chemicals reduce or affect men’s sperm or testicles, and a woman’s eggs or reproductive organs. They can lead to difficulty getting pregnant, carrying a pregnancy to term, or can cause infertility.

Miscarriage: Most miscarriages are normal and are not caused by chemicals. However, if you or your partner have had several miscarriages while or after working with chemicals, there might be a connection to the chemicals in your factory. For more information about miscarriages, see Where Women Have No Doctor, and speak with a health worker.

Problems with the baby inside the womb: Some chemicals affect the baby inside the womb by stopping the baby from growing well. These babies are born small or with low birth weight. Some chemicals cause birth defects, including physical or mental disabilities that might be visible at birth or might take time to show. Chemicals that cause birth defects are called "teratogenic" chemicals. SDS sheets might include how likely a chemical is to cause birth defects. Some chemicals affect the baby’s brain and will cause difficulty learning. Many chemicals can pass to a child in her mother’s breast milk.

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Sex and sexual health are hard to talk about. In many communities, women with fertility problems are discriminated against, so they might be unwilling to talk about these issues. But writing down your own sexual and reproductive health problems, or those of workers in your factory, can help identify and fight chemical exposures. Talking in small, informal, samesex groups might be better than a large meeting. You can also invite people to send you notes, texts, or emails anonymously, and agree to keep them confidential.

Chemicals cause cancer

Cancer is a serious illness that attacks cells in the body and changes the way they grow. Cancer cells grow into lumps that can appear anywhere in the body: on the skin, lungs, liver, blood, bone marrow, brain, and other parts. Some cancers you can feel when you touch that body part, such as breast cancer. Some are inside the body and are harder to discover.

If cancer is found early, it often can be cured. But some cancers can be hard to cure and will kill a person.

There are many reasons people get cancer. One of them is exposure to chemicals. Because we are exposed to so many chemicals at work, at home, and in the community, it is often very hard to know and prove that a cancer was caused by a chemical at work.

Most cancers develop slowly, and signs of illness do not appear for years after exposure to the substance that caused the cancer. For many workers, this means that they get cancer many years after working with the chemical that caused it.

a woman speaking; she wears a shirt with the word "KILSH" on it.
In a car accident, people are often injured in different ways. One person is only bruised, another is killed. Even though their injuries are different, nobody would say the car crash didn’t cause them. But when one worker in an electronics factory gets cancer from chemicals while another worker is fine, the company says the chemicals didn’t cause the disease. But we know, and science and the law agree, that the cancer was caused by chemicals regardless of which worker gets sick and which doesn’t.
the scene of a car accident, where 1 victim sits on the curb while another lies on a stretcher being put into an ambulance.

This page was updated:28 Feb 2021