Chemical Facts and Information

A chemical is any substance with a defined composition. Chemicals can be naturally occurring in nature or manufactured. Chemicals can also produce odors, but smelling an odor does not indicate how much exposure you have. Some chemicals are toxic and can cause health effects under certain conditions. Reducing your exposure to chemicals can lower the risk of health effects.

The New York State Department of Health is conducting exposure and health projects that look at exposure to chemicals, such as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), metals, and many other environmental contaminants, and related health outcomes.

Health Effects of Chemicals

Exposure to chemicals can cause health effects. No matter how dangerous a substance or activity, without exposure, it cannot harm you. The likelihood and severity of health effects depend on the amount of a substance a person is exposed to, the duration of exposure, route of exposure, and a person's sensitivity to the substance. Chemicals can cause various health effects such as:

  • Irritation. Chemicals such as ammonia, bromine, and chlorine can cause lung, skin, and eye irritation.
  • Blistering. Chemicals such as mustard gas can cause severe blisters in the eyes, skin, nose, mouth, throat, and lungs.
  • Nerve damage. Chemicals such as sarin can affect the nervous system and prevent muscles and organs from working properly.
  • Cancer and disease. Chemicals such as asbestos, cadmium, formaldehyde, and trichloroethylene can cause cancer and other disease.

Specific Chemicals and Sources

There are various types of chemicals and ways you may be exposed to them.

Ammonia (NH3) is commonly used in industry and commerce and exists naturally in humans and in the environment. Ammonia can be found in some cleaning products and most people are exposed to ammonia from inhalation of the gas or vapors.

Asbestos refers to six fibrous minerals that occur naturally in the environment. Asbestos has commonly been used in manufactured goods such as building materials, automobile parts, heat-resistant fabrics, and packaging. Asbestos is a known carcinogen and can cause other disease.

Bisphenol A (BPA) is used to make polycarbonate plastic which is used for items such as baby bottles, reusable water bottles, food containers, and other storage containers. BPA can be released into food and beverages from these containers.

Cadmium occurs naturally in the earth's crust and is used in batteries, metal coatings, and plastics. You may be exposed to cadmium from cigarette smoking, eating foods containing cadmium, or from children's metal jewelry.

Hydrogen sulfide occurs naturally in the environment and can be released from industrial processes, landfills, sewers, septic systems, wastewater treatment plants, animal manure, and field fertilizers.

Mercury is naturally occurring and can be found in fish and products such as thermometers, thermostats, and florescent light bulbs.

Potassium iodide (KI) is a chemical compound that can be used to protect the thyroid gland from possible radiation injury caused by radioactive iodine (radioiodine) in case of a radiological emergency.

Ricin is a chemical poison found in castor beans and is used as a terrorism agent. Accidental exposure to ricin is highly unlikely.

Tetracholorethene (PERC) is manufactured and is commonly used in dry-cleaning for fabrics or clothes. It can also be found in paint and spot removers, water repellents, and glues.

Trichloroethene (TCE) is commonly used as a solvent to remove grease from metal, spots from clothing, and as a paint stripper. It is also found in paints, varnishes, and adhesives.

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