A Primer on Toxic Substances

Toxic substances are found in many facilities, and employees can suffer a variety of illnesses as a result of unprotected exposures.

According to Understanding Toxic Substances, a guide for employers and employees published by the Washington Department of Labor and Industries:

"The toxicity of a substance is its ability to cause harmful effects. These effects can strike a single cell, a group of cells, an organ system, or the entire body. A toxic effect may be visible damage, or a decrease in performance or function measurable only by a test. All chemicals can cause harm. When only a very large amount of the chemical can cause damage, the chemical is considered to be practically non-toxic. When a tiny amount is harmful, the chemical is considered to be highly toxic.

"The toxicity of a substance depends on three factors:

  • Its chemical structure
  • The extent to which the substance is absorbed by the body
  • The body’s ability to detoxify the substance (change it into less toxic substances) and eliminate it from the body"


Dose, or how much of a toxic substance enters the body, is another important factor in determining how sick an employee might become as a result of an exposure.

According to Understanding Toxic Substances, "In general, the greater the amount of a substance that enters your body, the greater is the effect on your body. This connection between amount and effect is called the “dose- response relationship."

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“For example, organic solvents such as toluene, acetone, and trichloroethylene all affect the brain in the same way, but to different degrees at different doses. The effects of these solvents are similar to those that result from drinking alcoholic beverages. At a low dose, you may feel nothing or a mild, sometimes pleasant (“high”) sensation. A larger dose may cause dizziness or headache. With an even larger dose you may become drunk, pass out, or even stop breathing.”


Duration of exposure is also a critical factor. "The longer you are exposed to a chemical, the more likely you are to be affected by it," says the Washington Department of Labor in Industries. "The dose is still important-at very low levels you may not experience any effects no matter how long you are exposed. At higher concentrations you may not be affected following a short-term exposure, but repeated exposure over time may cause harm.

"Chemical exposure which continues over a long period of time is often particularly hazardous because some chemicals can accumulate in the body or because the damage does not have a chance to be repaired. The combination of dose and duration is called the rate of exposure."

To access Understanding Toxic Substances on the Washington Department of Labor and Industries’ website and learn more about toxicity and possible effects on your workers, click here.

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