Unknown Chemical Exposure

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How can people be exposed to harmful chemicals?
People can be exposed by eating, drinking, breathing or touching harmful chemicals. This may occur through accidental or intentional release.

How can people recognize that they have been exposed to a harmful chemical?
A strong chemical odor or a visible vapor cloud could mean that a chemical is in the air. However, a bad odor or a visible vapor cloud does not always mean the chemical is harmful, and some toxic chemicals do not have any odor or a vapor cloud.

What are the symptoms of a harmful chemical exposure?
A small chemical exposure can cause tearing eyes and burning of the eyes, nose, throat, chest and skin. It may cause headache, sweating, blurred vision, stomach aches and diarrhea. It is common for even mild symptoms from a harmful chemical to make people feel anxious. Once exposure is stopped, mild symptoms usually go away quickly. A large chemical exposure may additionally cause more serious effects such as difficulty breathing, coughing, wheezing, a faint feeling, or weakness. The worst effects from the most harmful chemicals are sudden collapse, convulsions, and possibly even death.

How soon after exposure do the symptoms appear?
Some effects occur immediately while others may take hours to develop.

How can people avoid exposure?
If harmful chemicals are released in an area, whether inside or outside, the best way to prevent exposure is for people to leave the area. Although it may be frightening to see people suddenly become ill, people in an area with harmful chemicals in the air should calmly and quickly move to fresh air. It is dangerous to return to an area with chemical contamination until it has been cleaned up and checked by experts.

People inside their home or work who know that a harmful chemical may have been released in the neighborhood should tune in to an emergency alert system (EAS) on the TV or radio for instructions, such as whether to stay where they are (shelter in place) or go somewhere else. Running outside may be more dangerous than staying inside.

What should people do if they have been exposed?
It is important to act quickly if exposed:

  • If you have breathed a chemical, immediately move to fresh air.
  • If liquid chemical soaks clothing or skin, then take clothes off right away and wash the skin with large amounts of water to flush away the chemical (strip and shower).
  • If eyes are splashed with liquid chemical or large amounts of gas, then flush the eyes with water.
  • People feeling sick should get medical care immediately. Often the local emergency department is the best place for a medical evaluation after chemical exposures.

Can chemical poisoning spread from one person to another?
People who only breathe a chemical gas and move quickly out of the area are not likely to have chemicals on their clothes or skin. Chemical poisoning can spread from one person to another only if the clothing or skin of the person initially exposed is covered in large amounts of the gas or soaked in the liquid chemical.

To prevent the spread of harmful chemicals:

  • If any possibility of contamination exists, remove the outer layer of clothing. [As much as 80 -90% of the contamination on a person can be removed just by taking off clothes.]
  • Avoid touching a contaminated person’s skin or clothing.
  • If liquid chemical contaminates skin or clothing, then avoid exposing others by not entering buildings or crowded areas until the outer layer of clothing is removed and the skin is washed thoroughly.
  • It is important that everyone follow the directions of rescuers if asked to “strip and shower” after a large number of people have been contaminated.

What should I do with my clothes and other personal belongings?
Contaminated clothing and other belongings should be placed somewhere away from other people (ideally in a plastic bag if available). Other belongings that need to be bagged along with clothing include watches, jewelry, hair accessories, wallets, keys, purses and briefcases. Remove contact lenses and do not put them back in. Glasses can be put back on after washing them.

How is a chemical poisoning diagnosed and treated?
Doctors may see the effects of poisoning in the eyes, nose, lungs, skin and nervous system and may recognize the effects as a specific poisoning without any blood tests. Blood tests to find harmful chemicals in the body may not be available. In some cases, doctors may conduct tests to help them treat the injuries.

An antidote (medicine) may be available for some chemical poisonings and may be given to ill people. For some people, the only treatment is to relieve symptoms, but most people who are exposed get well without treatment. Those experiencing serious symptoms (e.g., severe trouble breathing, seizures or coma) may need to be hospitalized.

Where can more information about chemical poisoning be found?
For medical emergencies contact the regional poison center (1-800-222-1222) or seek medical attention immediately by calling 911 or going to a local emergency department. More information about the health effects of chemical poisoning can be found through the Virginia Department of Health atwww.vdh.virginia.gov/oep/Agents.asp or through the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention at www.bt.cdc.gov or www.atsdr.cdc.gov.

Unknown Chemical Exposure: Guidance for Health Care Providers