Protecting Yourself Against Chronic, Low-Level Exposure to Chemical Agents

Protecting Yourself Against Chronic, Low-Level Exposure to Chemical Agents

by Aden Tate

When most people think about wearing respiratory protection, the immediate image that comes to mind is of a soldier wearing a gas mask as he moves through a poisonous area. Perhaps he's moving through an area of the World War 1 trenches, trying to survive the onslaught of mustard and machine gun fire that is finding its way to his position.

And while, as we've pointed out before, the threat of CBRN agents is genuine, many people neglect to remember that poisonous and toxic chemical agents don't just have to be encountered in large amounts to prove detrimental to your health. It's possible to end up with several health issues via repeated, low-dose exposures to various chemicals that we may otherwise consider innocuous.

This exposure potential to chemical agents is part of why it is so necessary for proper PPE to be kept on hand at all times. Need more proof? Let's take a closer look…


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    How dangerous is chronic, low-level chemical agent exposure?

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    Hydrogen Sulfide

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    Inhaled Heavy Metals

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    Watch Your Hands

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How dangerous is chronic, low-level chemical agent exposure?

People tend to think that they will be fine unless they experience an adverse effect right then and there from working with a chemical agent. The fact is that, sometimes, the body takes a bit of time with regular low-level exposures before it finally reacts.

Take, for example, the case of methylmercury. One of the reasons that pregnant women are told to avoid eating an excessive amount of fish is due to the presence of methylmercury in seafood. One fish by itself likely won't have a high enough level of this compound to cause any direct health effects to either the mother or the baby.

But, if the mother regularly eats seafood throughout her pregnancy, a food typically high in methyl mercury, she will have subjected herself and her baby to chronic, low-level exposures. If the levels reach a high enough threshold within the mother's body, she can give birth to a baby with some very severe abnormalities.

Chronic, low-level exposures, though they may seem insignificant at the moment, can result in a very significant outcome. And it's not just the food you eat that needs to be considered here. You also need to consider the air you breathe and what it is you're willing to let come into contact with your skin.


The first battlefield release of a chemical agent (that we know of) was with chlorine gas. Heavier than air, the cloud was renowned for its ability to seep into trenches, rendering them one of the most unsafe places to be on the battlefield.

However, chlorine is also a very common chemical to encounter in one's daily life. The chemical is used in a myriad of industrial applications, and it's not just a largescale leak of chlorine that you need to be concerned about. Chronic, low-level exposure to chlorine can be hazardous as well.

The thing about chronic exposures is that they won't kill you as quickly as acute, high-dose exposures will. Instead, they take their time and may not even kill you. There's an excellent likelihood that they'll leave you breathing but leave you maimed in the process.

This rule applies to chlorine as well.

It has been noted that children who swim in chlorinated pools in Europe have a much higher incidence of asthma and allergic disease than children who don't. Why was this? Because of the exposure to inhaled pool chlorine.

What are some of the other results of chronic chlorine exposure? Research shows that chronic chlorine exposure causes inflammation, is associated with asthma and exacerbates it if pre-existing, and can negatively impact the mucosa within your lungs. Sound like a fun time?


Like chlorine, formaldehyde is found just about everywhere. It occurs naturally in the world (shiitake mushrooms being a great example), but it is also heavily involved in industry. Construction, furniture, textiles, carpeting, and painting are just a few of the sectors associated with chronic formaldehyde exposure.

Formaldehyde-preserved specimens. (Image source: Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons )

Construction-style occupations involve the most significant exposure, however. Among the array of chemical agents, formaldehyde is heavily used in particle wood and plywood as a part of the glue that holds everything together, and these products "off-gas" – sending out formaldehyde as time goes on.

What happens then when somebody is regularly exposed to low levels of formaldehyde? The answer? A lot.

(Image source: Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons )

One study of police officers housed in two mobile home trailer units for a brief period found that not only were they exposed to significant levels of formaldehyde throughout their stay, but they ended up with shortness of breath and headache, fatigue, and eye and throat irritation.

Other studies have found the same.

Chronic, low-level formaldehyde exposure has been linked to persistent cough, nose runniness, loss of smell, eye irritation, watery eyes, wheezing, heartburn, tremors, skin sores, chest pain, abdominal pain, excessive phlegm production, pharyngeal congestion, cornea disorders, nasopharyngeal cancer, and likely leukemia as well.

It's also been found that regular exposure results in a 30-60% increase in the risk of developing chronic headaches and dizziness. In short, this is something that you need to protect yourself against.


College anatomy labs have been found to have extremely high levels of formaldehyde in the air.

Hydrogen Sulfide

While highly toxic, hydrogen sulfide is a naturally occurring gas that can often be found in swamps, marshes, and the like. However, this is another gas heavily produced throughout much of modern industry. In particular, those involved in wastewater treatment, the oil/gas industry, or other industrial facilities are at an increased risk of low-level hydrogen sulfide exposure.

Hydrogen sulfide coming out of the ground in Iceland.

The problem here, too, is that hydrogen sulfide negatively impacts just about every organ of the body that it comes into contact with. However, it's particularly known for causing pulmonary edema and neurotoxicity in the central nervous system.

Regular exposure to hydrogen sulfide can result in the victim developing shortness of breath, a persistent cough, wheezing, and even easy bruising. Yet another reason that it's vital to make sure that you are protecting your lungs when working in a potentially toxic environment.

Inhaled Heavy Metals

Virtually any heavy metal becomes dangerous when it accumulates in the body, but inhalation is one of the chief ways this bioaccumulation begins. Suppose one works in an occupation where smelting, wood preserving, etching, spray painting, lead plating, soldering, or galvanizing are regular parts of the job. In that case, you will be at an increased risk of inhaling high amounts of heavy metals.

These are all ways that one could end up exposed to chronic, low levels of chromate, cadmium, chromium, lead, or arsenic, but research tends to like to point out the impact of inhaled heavy metals on those within the spray-painting industry.

For example, one study on auto painting establishments found that 10% of the employees experienced wheezing and shortness of breath, that eye irritation was a regular part of spraying and that wearing proper equipment was commonly bypassed. Granted, this study examined hexamethylene diisocyanate, a compound added to paint to help it survive UV light exposure over the long term.

The problem is that heavy metals are a major health threat once they accumulate within the body. They can cause DNA damage, destroy membranes, cause proteins to misfold, kidney problems, central nervous system issues, interfere with regular enzyme activity, or interfere with proteins in the body in other ways. The result is a bizarre collection of truly miserable diseases that you want to do your best to avoid.

The catch here, though, is that you don't necessarily have to breathe any of these, and you're just as likely to end up with heavy metals (or other "unwanteds") in your body simply by touching them.

Watch Your Hands

So far, we've only looked at some of the daily inhalational threats millions face. However, there are plenty of other agents people touch regularly that can negatively impact to be aware of as well.

Of note is when people are working with paints, stains, or other caustic chemicals. The skin is the largest organ of the human body. While it is a fantastic barrier for organs from the outside world, it can still absorb substances.

A beauty product that was causing mercury poisoning.

How is it that "The Patch" works? How does it help to get smokers to quit? By allowing the skin to absorb nicotine, as the skin can absorb chemicals. EMTs will wear gloves when removing patches from an unconscious patient's skin because they don't want to absorb whatever medicine is in that patch.

A transdermal, medicinal patch used to treat major depression.

The Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland is actually based on real-life hatters of the time. The hat-making trade involved regular physical contact with mercury. This mercury would be absorbed through the skin, and in time, this could lead to the hatter becoming insane.

And while this may seem apparent, many people don't act this way when dealing with potentially dangerous chemicals.

For example, did you know that a Chinese paint factory study found that the longer employees worked at the factory, the higher their chance of renal dysfunction? This isn't just something that's isolated to China, however. Painters just about everywhere have higher blood levels of lead and other heavy metals. While undoubtedly much of this exposure comes from breathing paint fumes, some will come from paint absorption too.

But it's not just painters here who are at risk. Fruit pickers, degreasers, and those who regularly work with solvents or polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are also at an increased risk of coming into contact with chemical agents that they would rather not absorb through their skin. These compounds are also associated with kidney damage, liver problems, and unpleasant changes to the nervous system.

This is one of the reasons that wearing proper gloves is so essential. We've written before about how to choose the right glove for the job, but we highly recommend that you take a look at our butyl rubber gloves and boots as well.


Henna tattoos are a low-level source of lead exposure. There is some trepidation that repeated applications of henna tattoos to a teenager's body could result in a lead overdose.

There does seem to be some risk with vapors being absorbed through the skin with some compounds as well. While there is little research on this subject as of now, and aromatic solvents don't seem to be absorbed through the skin via vapor, some studies out there show that alcohol solvents are readily absorbed through the skin in gas form. If you regularly work with these types of solvents, you must ensure that you wear the proper protection levels.

Our butyl rubber HAZ-GLOVES are 129% thicker than the current US military standard, based on the Serbian military's design for their gloves, and will serve you well as you work with several potentially dangerous chemicals around your home or at work. Additionally our NC-11 Protective Gloves will fit the bill as welll.

The same can be said for our butyl rubber Hazmat Overboots. When the risk of getting chemicals onto your shoes is very real, consider upgrading your footwear to protect your feet better. Our overboots can do just that.

It’s Not All Doom and Gloom

One of the top things people need to know is that you can find research proving that just about anything you come into contact with daily will kill you. Many people will point to the need to return to a primitive life to minimize their risk of coming into contact with dangerous chemicals as much as possible.

But then, they neglect to remember that campfire cooking is a chief cause of respiratory infections in the developing world and that there are compounds created in food by cooking with campfires that are associated with an increased risk of cancer as well.

The point is that just about everything out there can harm you somehow, and that's simply how things are in the world.

The point here isn't to make you feel as if you need to wear a gas mask every waking hour but instead to make you aware of the risks out there. This awareness can then help you make well-informed decisions about when you should wear respiratory protection and gloves and when you are likely okay to go without.

Hopefully, we've helped you to do that here. There's no need to fear every piece of plastic out there that you touch, but there is reason to make sure that you are informed of the risks of what it is that you're coming into contact with and breathing in daily.

And if you have looked at the risks and concluded that they are enough to warrant action, then MIRA Safety has you covered with a number of high-quality gas masks, filters, and garb that will help to keep dangerous chemicals out of your system.

But what are your thoughts on all this? Are there other chronic, low-level exposure risks that we didn't spell out above that you think people should be wary of? Do you have more to add about what we did discuss? Let us know in the comment section below.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are some of the most important times to minimize exposure to low levels of chemicals?
Are gloves necessary when you’re involved in industrial spray painting?
But gloves are uncomfortable and hot. Why wear them?