What are toxic substances?

What Does Toxic substances Mean

We explain what toxic substances are, what is their toxicity and their classification. Also, toxic substances in the home.

Carbon monoxide is a toxic substance that we produce when we use fuels.

What are toxic substances?

Toxic substances are those substances capable of causing harmful effects in a living organism when they come into contact with it or when ingested. A toxic substance is any compound endowed with toxicity, capable of producing intoxications.

From the oldest health treatises, the effect of poisons and toxins is known, as well as their relationship with concentration and dose, since practically any known substance is capable of producing intoxications, provided it is administered in the appropriate dose.

Huge amounts of commonly vital elements such as oxygen, or common life compounds such as carbon dioxide , can be toxic in large quantities, while other elements require very minimal doses to do much damage to the body.

The toxicity of a substance depends on three factors :

  • Its chemical characteristics. Depending on the composition of the substance, it will produce some or other effects in the body and these effects may be more or less counteractive.
  • The dose in which it is. This involves the amount of the compound, but also its concentration. It is not the same to take a teaspoon of almost pure kerosene, than a whole can. In this case, taking the bottle implies greater toxicity for the body. Nor is it the same to take a teaspoon of almost pure kerosene, than a drum of a solution of 0.0005ml of kerosene in 1l of water . In the latter case, we will be drinking more volume of liquid when we drink the drum, but with less kerosene content than what is contained in the teaspoon, that is, we would be practically drinking water because the dissolution would be very dilute, and taking the teaspoon would imply greater toxicity to the body.
  • The characteristics of the exposed organism. Certain substances can be very toxic to one organism and not to another, and there may be organisms individually sensitized to a substance (as in the case of allergies). For example, insecticides are lethal substances for insects, but not for humans (although they can cause allergic reactions).

On the other hand, the effects of a toxic substance in an organism depend on its exposure to it, understood as:

  • Serious exposure. It occurs when the individual is exposed to the substance only once, usually in high doses, which can cause serious and irreversible damage, or death .
  • Chronic exposure. It occurs when the individual is exposed to the substance over a period of time, usually in small doses.

See also: Chemical risk

Classification of toxic substances

Tobacco contains various carcinogenic toxic substances.

One of the ways to classify toxic substances is according to their effect on the body that is exposed to them, as follows:

  • Poisonous substances. They are those that, when entering the body, cause damage that leads to death, due to their ability to affect the functioning of the body. They usually have localized effects in the body: hemotoxic (in the blood), neurotoxic (the brain), hepatotoxic (the liver), etc.
  • Irritating or corrosive substances. They are those that, when they come into contact with the body, cause superficial damage, such as irritations, burns or loss of tissue ( corrosion ). In many cases it is enough to inhale them to suffer burns in the respiratory tract.
  • Carcinogenic substances. They are those that usually cause the appearance of tumors and cancers in the body, because they interfere with DNA and cell reproduction
  • Mutagenic substances. They are those capable of altering the DNA of the cells of the organism and producing spontaneous mutations , whose effects can be unsuspected: from diseases and ailments, to deformations and motor conditions genetically transmissible to the offspring.
  • Toxic substances for reproduction. They are those capable of producing total or partial infertility, or spontaneously interrupting a pregnancy, or even causing malformations in the fetus.

Examples of toxic substances

Cyanide toxicity has catastrophic environmental consequences.

Some examples of toxic substances are:

  • Carbon monoxide (CO). Upon entering the bloodstream, it prevents the transport of oxygen by the hemoglobin molecule .
  • Cyanide (CN - ). This anion affects the action of essential enzymes in the transport of oxygen and is a very aggressive poison for living organisms.
  • Heavy metals. The ions of metals heavy (as Pb 2+ and Hg 2+ ) react with -SH groups that form disulfide bridges in proteins . This causes denaturation (loss of higher order structures) of many proteins, which causes the loss of the biological function of these macromolecules .
  • Asbestos Also known as asbestos, it is a compound of silicate crystals, capable of producing lung diseases and inducing cancer.
  • Arsenic (As). It is a chemical element that, despite being found in some vital organic compounds, is generally poisonous since it reacts easily with proteins, and is distributed in less than 24 hours in various organs of the body and causing their failure.
  • The lead (Pb) and its derivatives. When this chemical element is consumed chronically (commonly used in industries ), it is associated with cases of anemia, infertility, damage to the kidneys and the nervous system .
  • Vinyl chloride. Used in plumbing and plastic injection , it can cause drowsiness and irritation of the mucous membranes when inhaled, and eventually liver cancer and skin lesions.

Toxic substances in the home

Toxic substances in the home should be kept out of the reach of children.

Our homes can be exposed to toxic substances, even in very small amounts. Some are part of ordinary use products, so they require proper handling, to avoid taking risks . The exact compounds of these products can vary widely, so it is easier to identify them, that is, to put labels on the packages to avoid confusion. For example:

  • Paints , enamels, solvents and thinners.
  • Detergents with bleach and / or ammonia.
  • Insecticides , pesticides, herbicides and some fertilizers.
  • The internal contents of fluorescent bulbs , thermometers, lava lamps, lighters, and gas pipes in the refrigerator.
  • Varnishes , waxes, polishes and liquid plungers.
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