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Airborne Contaminants: The Hazards Present

- November 17, 2014 by Glen O'Rourke, ALCM (View all posts by Glen)

In part two of my series on airborne contaminants, I will be reviewing the hazards associated with each contaminant. As a reminder, I discussed the five basic types of airborne contaminants – dust, fume, vapor mist, and gas – in part one of this serious, “Airborne Contaminants: Defining the Terms.”

Potential hazards from airborne contaminants can be divided into two types:

  • Direct toxicity to the human body (both acute and/or chronic effects)
  • Injuries due to factors initiated, but not directly caused, by the contaminant

There are three ways an airborne contaminant may enter the body: inhalation, ingestion and absorption.

Inhalation is by far the most important concern regarding airborne contaminants, as just about any airborne substance can be inhaled. Using the respiratory system as a route into the blood stream, contaminants can then reach any part of the body. causing damage to the respiratory system itself and/or other parts of the body.

Examples of direct toxicity due to inhalation are:

  • Asphyxiation from carbon monoxide (an acute effect)
  • Fever, nausea, muscular pain  such as “metal fume fever” from zinc oxide (an acute effect)
  • Silicosis from silica containing dust (a chronic effect)

Ingestion is when the contaminant is swallowed and enters the body through the digestive system. Absorption is when the contaminant enters the body through the skin; the skin can be either intact or damaged.

Examples of situations where injuries may be caused by factors initiated, but not directly caused, by the contaminant are:

  • A fall resulting from inhalation of a contaminant having narcotic or anesthetic effect, that caused a loss of consciousness
  • A fire caused when a flammable vapor ignited and caused  injuries

Airborne contaminants may present many hazards, and understanding them is an important component in developing appropriate protective measures. What chemicals do you have in your workplace that might create a hazard?  How have you addressed this?


Hagan, Philip E., Montgomery, John F., & O’Reilly, James T. (2009). Accident Prevention Manual for Business & Industry, Engineering & Technology. (13th Ed.) Chicago, Illinois: National Safety Council.

Plog, Barbara A. (1988). Fundamentals of Industrial Hygiene. (3rd ed.) Chicago, Illinois: National Safety Council.