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1. What is environmental exposure?

  • Environmental exposure occurs when you contact a chemical substance or radioactive material in your environment. This could be where you work, live, and/or play.
  • For chemical exposure to occur you must come in contact with the substance or material and it must enter or touch your body.  Exposure to radioactive material can occur these ways too, or it can enter your body if you are close to it. 

2. Where do the contaminants come from?

  • Chemical substances and radioactive materials enter the environment from a source. There are many different types of sources.
  • Some examples of outdoor sources include:
    • Industrial facilities, such as factories and chemical plants
    • Landfills
    • Hazardous waste sites
    • Illegal dumping onto land or into water
  • Some examples of household sources include:
    • Paints and paint strippers
    • Household cleaners
    • Cigarette smoke
    • Air fresheners

3. How can I be exposed?

  • You can be exposed to a contaminant at its source or where it has moved to in air, water, soil/sediment, or food.
  • Depending on the contaminants, you can be exposed by:
    • Eating or drinking the contaminants in water, soil, or food.
    • Breathing them in air.
    • Touching them in water, soil, sediment, air, or food.
    • Direct irradiation from airborne or deposited radioactive material.

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4. Will I get sick from environmental exposure?

  • Being exposed does not mean you will get sick.
  • Whether you get sick depends on:
    • The type of contaminant.
    • How it entered your body.
    • How much entered your body.
    • The developmental stage when exposure occurred.
    • How long you were exposed.
    • How many times you were exposed.
    • Your individual health and how your body reacts to exposure.

5. How can I tell if I have been exposed?

  • First, ask your health care provider to take an exposure history. A document on how to take an exposure history is available at [PDF - 420KB].
  • For some chemicals or radioactive materials, blood or urine sampling can tell if you have been exposed. Ask your health care provider if he or she can do these tests or recommend where you could go to have them done.
  • Your health care provider will need some specific information about the possible environmental exposure. Without that information your health care provider may not be able to tell you what your testing results mean.

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6. What can I do if I think I have been exposed to contaminants from a site?

  • Contact your community or state health or environmental quality department.
  • To request that ATSDR evaluate potential exposure in your community or neighborhood, call 1-800-CDC-INFO.

7. Reference Section

ATSDR. 2005. Public health assessment guidance manual (update).
Atlanta, GA: US Department of Health and Human Services

ATSDR. 2003. Chemical exposure fact sheet. Atlanta, GA: US Department of Health and Human Services.   

ATSDR. Environmental chemical exposure: The basics. Atlanta, GA: US Department of Health and Human Services.

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Contact Us:
  • Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry
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    Atlanta, GA 30341
  • 800-CDC-INFO
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    Contact CDC-INFO The U.S. Government's Official Web PortalDepartment of Health and Human Services
Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, 4770 Buford Hwy NE, Atlanta, GA 30341
Contact CDC: 800-232-4636 / TTY: 888-232-6348

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