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Exposure Pathways to Hazardous Materials

An exposure pathway refers to the way in which a person may come into contact with a hazardous substance, whether it is a chemical, biological, or some other harmful substance. There are three basic exposure pathways: inhalation, ingestion, or direct contact. The degree or extent of exposure is determined by measuring the amount of the hazardous substance at the point of contact, whether that contact occurs in the lungs of someone who has breathed in the hazard, the stomach lining of someone who has eaten it, or the skin of someone who has touched it. Health and ecological hazards can result from such exposures. Some common ways in which people may become exposed to hazardous substances include the following:

  • Groundwater and Surface Water. Exposure will occur if people drink contaminated groundwater or surface water, accidentally ingest it while swimming, or if it comes into contact with their skin (e.g., in the shower, while swimming, etc.).

  • Soil, Sediment, Dust. People will be exposed to hazardous substances in soil, sediment, or dust if they accidentally ingest it (e.g., the contaminants land on their food), if they breathe it in (especially dust), or if their skin comes into direct contact with the contaminated materials. Because of their play habits, children are highly susceptible to exposure through these pathways.

  • Air. When the hazardous substance takes the form of vapors or is absorbed by particulate matter (e.g., dust), the simple act of breathing can expose people to contamination. In some cases, a person's skin can absorb a hazardous substance in vapor form, although inhalation is considered the greater threat.

  • Food. Eating food that has been contaminated is another common exposure route. In some cases, food found on people's plates may be contaminated as a result of direct exposure to the hazardous substance. In other cases, food contamination may occur further down the food chain. For example, hazardous substances can collect in the fatty tissues of animals that ingest contaminated plants. The contamination can then be transferred to the animals' natural predators, and eventually, to people.

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