Exposure Pathways to
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.).
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.
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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