• Posted by: Nick

What Are Toxic Substances?

You may already have some awareness of common toxic substances. These might include lead in your water, asbestos in your insulation, mercury in shellfish, and glyphosates in pesticides, all of which can have a direct impact on your health as well as the health of animals, plants, and entire ecosystems. 

But knowing some of their names is different from understanding what they can do to your health and what you can look out for. So, let’s start by asking, “What are toxic substances?” 

A Brief Introduction to Toxic Substances  

When talking about toxic substances, it is first important to differentiate between a toxic substance and a hazardous substance. These two words often occur side-by-side but mean different things.

What are toxic substances? According to the Australian Dangerous Goods Code (ADG Code) under class 6, toxic substances are defined as being “substances liable either to cause death or serious injury or to harm human health if swallowed or inhaled or by skin contact.” 

A hazardous substance on the other hand can include toxic substances, while also including flammable and explosive substances or those that oxidise and react when in contact with the air or other substances. 

Why Toxic Substances Are Important  

Toxic substances have a wide range of uses in today’s world, from construction and production materials to fuels, insecticides, and everyday cleaning products you use around your home. The widespread use of toxic substances is not in and of itself a bad thing, and in many cases, they are necessary for meeting a vast array of needs. 

When these substances are mishandled or allowed to leak into water sources and ecosystems, they may cause damage, poisoning you, animals, or the environment.

Often, the products that we buy everyday use a toxic substance at some stage in their production, and the fuels that power our cars, trucks, and almost all other engines are toxic. Each has its place and value in the modern world and isn’t a problem when used and handled correctly. That’s why it is so important to understand how to handle and dispose of toxic substances properly and what to do in case of an accident. 

What Are the Different Types of Toxic Materials?

Toxic materials come in all shapes and sizes. Depending on their physical characteristics, they can be: 

  • Dust 
  • Vapours
  • Gases
  • Liquids
  • Solids
  • Mist 
  • Fibres
  • Fumes

When storing or working with toxic substances, it is extremely important to consider their physical state to reduce the likelihood of hazardous exposure. Toxic dust can be picked up by the wind and spread through the environment. For example, spraying a toxic liquid can create a mist that is easily inhaled. 

For this reason, you will need to ensure that the right storage method and protective equipment are used for the physical state of the toxic substance as well as for its chemical properties and characteristics. 

What Effects Do Toxic Substances Have on the Human Body?

There are two categories of effects that you would experience when you come into contact with a toxic substance: local effects and systemic effects.  

Local Effects 

A local effect is where a toxic substance causes damage to a local part of the body with which it has come into contact. Local effects can make identifying whether someone has been exposed to toxic materials easier. 

Systemic Effects 

Systemic effects are caused by a toxic substance entering the body, normally travelling through the bloodstream and damaging other parts of the body such as organs rather than just the contact site.

It is important to note that a toxic substance may have either local effects, systemic effects, or a combination of both.  

Epoxy resin, for example, will cause a local effect by irritating and damaging skin cells, and when fumes from epoxy resin are inhaled, they will irritate the respiratory system. They do not, however, cause systemic effects in other parts of the body. Potassium cyanide, on the other hand, can cause local irritation when touched or inhaled and can also travel throughout the body and affect every cell it comes into contact with. This is a systemic effect.  

Because some substances only produce systemic effects within the body and won’t be so easy to identify with an observable local effect, the symptoms of poisoning must be well understood so that medical attention can be given in the case of exposure to a toxic substance. 

Storage Requirements for Toxic Substances  

When storing toxic or hazardous chemicals in the workplace, Australian businesses and organizations must refer to the Guide to Managing Risks of Storing Chemicals in the Workplace as outlined by Safe Work Australia. 

The first step in storing toxic substances involves an in-depth and full identification process of all of your toxic or hazardous chemicals as well as what toxic substances may be produced as a result of production.

The Hierarchy of Control Measures is often employed and involves four stages: 

  1. Safely dispose of chemicals that you do not need and keep on-site quantities of stored toxic chemicals as low as reasonably possible. 
  2. Substitute hazardous or toxic chemicals for less hazardous or toxic options. Separate incompatible chemicals from each other so they cannot mix in the instance of a spill, store chemicals away from people and work areas, use ventilation to remove any fumes, and install spill management systems. 
  3. Create a set of administrative actions, such as restricting unnecessary access to toxic substances, clearly marking chemical storage areas, and training all employees regarding the substances and storage facilities. 
  4. Keep all of the right Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) on site for cleaning up spills and handling toxic substances. 

Toxic substances play a crucial role in how our society works, from fuels to industrial chemicals and household cleaning agents. They come with a wide range of benefits; however, they must be handled and stored appropriately to ensure that they do not cause injuries and that they do not damage the environment.  

Have any additional questions regarding toxic substances? Need any professional advice on safely cleaning up after a spill has taken place? Then contact us or reach out through our Facebook, Twitter, or any of our other EcoSpill social media platforms.