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Chemicals at Work Causing Health Problems

Updated on August 9, 2012
Worried your workplace might expose you to harmful chemicals?
Worried your workplace might expose you to harmful chemicals? | Source

Most people are exposed to chemicals throughout the day, unaware of the threat cleaning supplies, cosmetics, and a litany of other commonly found products pose to their health and well-being. While admittedly many of these chemical products are usually applied in the home, where vigilant home-owners can properly manage and contain them, some of the most hazardous materials can be found lurking in the workplace. Depending on your occupation, you may be vulnerable to a variety of dangerous materials.

Exposure to chemicals vastly depends on the state of the workplace, as well as what type of work is actually being done. A factory, for instance, is likely to be riddled with chemicals, whereas an office building will see a reduced chemical affliction. However, that is not to say that sitting in a cubical eliminates the risk. So whether you work in an industrial setting or in a quiet office, it still pays to be cautious.

What Are These Chemicals?

It seems the toxic gods have an entire repetoire of harmful chemicals to invade the workplace, sending them coursing through our unsuspecting immune systems through a few different pathways, namely; inhalation through the lungs, ingestion through the mouth, and absorption through the skin. Below, you'll find a list of a few of the chemicals toxifying the workplace and how they do so, as well as a table that lists how they enter the body. Remember, this is just a basic list. I did not find every harmful chemical you might discover at work. In reality, every chemical compound the world has to offer has the potential to be dangerous. But don't worry, most of them are completely safe in moderation.

  • Acetone: This chemical can cause damage to vital organs, including the lungs, liver, and nervous system.
  • Aerosols: This is a pretty general term. An aerosol is anygroup of extremely fine solid or liquid particles in gas form. Simply put, clouds, smog, smoke, and any other gaseous chemicals can be called aerosols. While this means that not all aerosols are dangerous, the ones that are a bit more routine in the workplace, like dust, also tend to be miasmic in nature, negatively impacting your health.
  • Asbestos: An incredibly dangerous type of mineral that is famous for its instigation of lung cancer and mesothelioma in factory workers due widespread usage in manufacturing.
  • Corrosive Chemicals: Lots of cleaning chemicals can cause minor to severe burns if left on the skin.
  • Dioxins: Contaminants commonly found in pesticides, herbicides, and technical products. Dioxins have a wide array of health impacts, including liver toxicity, formation of skin cysts, impaired immune system, breast cancer, and even genetic damage.
  • Glycol Ethers: These chemicals can poison the reproductive system, as well as damage red blood cells and the liver.
  • Lead: This periodic element is one of the most useful metals around, but as many already know, it can be extremely poisonous. It works toxifying many crucial chemical reactions in the body by replacing the metals that would usually be involved, like iron, zinc, and calcium. Thankfully, lead is monitored very carefully these days, so lead poisoning is a rare occurence.
  • Phenols: These chemicals can cause nausea, vomiting, and even paralysis and coma in very rare, extreme instances.

Technically speaking, any of these chemicals can be ingested, inhaled, or absorbed, but this table just lists how they usually enter the body.

Corrosive Chemicals
Glycol Ether
Many cleaning supplies contain a variety of harmful chemicals.
Many cleaning supplies contain a variety of harmful chemicals. | Source

Where Are They Found?

  • Adhesives and Removers: Strong adhesives like rubber cement or super glue and adhesive removers such as nail polish remover often contain acetone and glycol ethers, so be sure to wash any off your skin.
  • Aerosol Sprays: Common spray cans of pressurized liquids and air often contain harmful chemicals in the form of aerosols and are utilized in countless occupations. Pesticides/insecticides, deodorants, spray paints, and even compressed air dusters for cleaning keyboards and the like can be dangerous. Many aerosol sprays contain harsh chemicals such as difluoroethane (found in air dusters), a corrosive chemical that can cause severe frost burn on contact with skin, be fatal if inhaled, and even ignite under the right (or wrong) conditions. Thankfully, most aerosol sprays come with a clear warning printed on the can. I myself have had unfortunate (accidental) contact with compressed air, so trust me when I say read the labels. Freezing your own skin is NOT a pleasant experience.
  • Cleaning Supplies: Whether you're a custodian or work in a place that has one, it's good to be wary of the cleaning supplies being used around the workplace. Different products contain different chemicals. It's mainly the strong ones like bleach that you have to worry about, due to the corrosive chemicals that wipe away grime and bacteria.
  • Disinfectants: Yes, even disinfectants can be infectious. Hand sanitizers and other disinfectants contain phenols, which, if swallowed, can cause nausea and paralysis in extreme cases.
  • Manufacturing Equipment: Some manufactured products and equippment still contain lead and asbestos, so proper protective clothing and breathing/gas masks are advised.
  • Printer and Pen Ink: Ink from printers and pens are pretty safe compared to cleaning supplies, but still contain irritants that can leech into your skin over time. Don't worry too much, spilling a little ink or nicking yourself with a sharpie isn't going to hurt you. Just be sure to wash any ink you may have spilled thoroughly off your skin.

How to Stay Safe:

Honestly, as long as you don't intentionally breathe, swallow, or smother yourself in chemical solutions or industrial supplies, you're probably going to be fine. It's important to take this all with a grain of salt - Lysol's not going to kill you as long as you don't try to drink it. Most of these chemicals are harmless in small doses, it's only when you've been exposed to a large amount or for a prolonged period of time that you should start to worry. Remember, read the labels on chemical products. If you're exposed to a lot of chemicals in the workplace, you'll most likely notice. If you start to feel sick, call your doctor or poison control, or go to the hospital in extreme cases. If you're still nervous, it never hurts to have a few sanitary masks on-hand or some protective clothing if you know you'll need to handle anything potentially dangerous.


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    • Btryon86 profile image

      Btryon86 5 years ago

      Thanks a lot, Keith! I agree, it can all be a bit disconcerting.

    • profile image

      KDuBarry03 5 years ago

      Wow, this is quite scary to think about to be quite honest; however, it is definitely good information. Goes to show that we are better off living nowhere since these chemicals are all around us (depending on where we live)

      Great information, Brandon. Voted up, pinned, and shared!

    • Btryon86 profile image

      Btryon86 5 years ago

      Thanks Kaili! Thankfully most of the chemicals are pretty harmless in small doses, but it still makes you think.

    • Kaili Bisson profile image

      Kaili Bisson 5 years ago from Canada

      Hey Brandon, useful, interesting and up! It is scary what we are exposed to on a regular basis.