Health Effects from Chemical Exposure
There are two types of health effects from chemical exposure.
Note: Some chemicals have both acute and chronic effects, such as carbon monoxide.
These types of effects occur immediately or within a short time (minutes or hours) following exposure. Death is possible from some hazardous substances. Exposure to the chemical is typically sudden, short-term, and with a high concentration. For example, if a worker is exposed to carbon monoxide, they may quickly experience a headache, collapse, or even death.
Chronic effects usually develop after continual or repeated exposure to a dangerous chemical. This long-term exposure can sometimes occur over several years. For example, a worker could develop lung cancer from long-term exposure to asbestos.
Construction workers may be exposed to asbestos during demolition or remodeling of older buildings built before 1980. Most of these buildings contain asbestos insulation or other asbestos-containing products.
Asbestos is well-recognized as a health hazard and is highly regulated. Although asbestos is no longer used as an insulation material, workers may still be exposed to asbestos during demolition or remodeling jobs.
Asbestos may also still be found in some taping compounds, asbestos cement, pipes, and floor tiles. Vinyl asbestos floor tiles may be as much as 15% to 20% asbestos, which is released when old flooring is removed.
Asbestos removal can only be done by specially trained asbestos workers. Significant exposure to asbestos can cause breathing problems, lung cancer, and cancer of the lung lining many years after exposure.
Welding fumes contain a variety of chemicals depending on what is being welded, the chemical makeup of welding rods, fluxes, and shielding gases. Workers in the area who experience the symptoms listed below should leave the area immediately, seek fresh air and obtain medical attention.
- Acute exposure to welding fumes and gases can result in eye, nose and throat irritation, dizziness, and nausea.
- Prolonged exposure to welding fumes may cause long-term effects such as lung damage and various types of cancer, including lung, larynx and urinary tract.
Health effects from certain fumes may include metal fume fever, stomach ulcers, kidney damage, and nervous system damage. Prolonged exposure to manganese fumes can cause Parkinson – like symptoms.
Gases such as helium, argon, and carbon dioxide displace oxygen in the air and can lead to suffocation, particularly when welding in confined or enclosed spaces. Carbon monoxide gas can form, posing a serious asphyxiation hazard.
A variety of solvents with varying degrees of toxicity are used in construction. They are in paints, glues, epoxies and other products. Health hazards associated with solvent exposure include:
- toxicity to the nervous system,
- reproductive damage,
- liver and kidney damage,
- respiratory impairment, cancer, and
Generally, the possibility of exposure to excessive amounts of solvent vapors is greater when solvents are handled in enclosed or confined spaces.
Symptoms of overexposure to solvents include:
- irritate your eyes, nose or throat;
- make you dizzy, sleepy, give you a headache or cause you to pass out;
- affect your judgment or coordination;
- cause internal damage to your body; and
- dry out or irritate your skin.
About 2.3 million workers are exposed to respirable crystalline silica in their workplaces, including 2 million construction workers who drill, cut, crush, or grind silica-containing materials such as concrete and stone, and 300,000 workers in general industry operations such as brick manufacturing, foundries, and hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking.
Quartz is the most common form of crystalline silica. In fact, it is the second most common
surface material accounting for almost 12% by volume of the earth’s crust. Quartz is present in many materials in the construction industry, such as brick and mortar, concrete, slate, dimensional stone (granite, sandstone), stone aggregate, tile, and sand used for blasting. Other construction materials that contain crystalline silica are asphalt filler, roofing granules, plastic composites, soils, and to a lesser extent, some wallboard joint compounds, paint, plaster, caulking, and putty.
Exposure to excessive silica dust causes lung scarring and disease over time. The size of the airborne silica particles determines the amount of risk. Smaller particles can be inhaled deep into the lungs where they can cause damage. Larger particles, such as beach sand, are not as great a concern because they are too large to inhale.
Lead is very toxic and can cause several long-term health problems. Construction workers can be exposed to lead on bridge repair work, lead paint removal on metal structures or buildings or demolition of old buildings with lead paint, or using lead solder.
The frequency and severity of medical symptoms increase with the concentration of lead in the blood. Common symptoms of acute lead poisoning are:
- loss of appetite
- stomach cramps
- difficulty sleeping
- joint or muscle aches
Acute health poisoning from uncontrolled occupational exposures has resulted in fatalities. Chronic overexposure to lead may result in severe damage to the central nervous system and reproductive systems.