Exposure Pathways – ATSDR

Exposure Pathways

Chemicals can be released into the soil, water or air from spilled or leaking containers, leaking landfills or dumps, through spraying, or released from smokestacks. These chemicals follow a pathway, or a route from the time of release to the point of human contact. When a substance enters the ecosystem where it is not normally found, it is called a contaminant. Humans become exposed to these contaminants by touching, breathing, or ingesting substances that contain the chemical (ATSDR, 1993).

To determine if human health is at risk of disease from contaminants, two things must occur: there must be an exposure to a contaminant; and the contaminant must be toxic. A complete exposure pathway must be present for disease to occur. The elements of an exposure pathway are:

  1. The source – how the contaminant got into the environment
  2. The transport media – how the contaminant moves through the environment
  3. The exposure point – how people came in contact with the contaminant
  4. The exposure route – how the contaminant entered the body

The receptor population – how susceptible the population is to the contaminant (adapted from ATSDR, 1994).

Additionally, whether the exposure causes disease depends on the dose (how much), the duration (how long you are exposed), the route of exposure (breathing, eating, or through the skin), other chemicals to which you are exposed, and individual characteristics such as age, sex, nutritional status, genetic traits, lifestyle and general health condition (ATSDR, 1993).

Dermal contact with contaminants in water, soil, air, food, and other media, such as exposed wastes or other contaminated material. 

Occupational Exposures
Swimming Pool

External exposure to radiation

Non-ionizing Radiation

  1. Microwave radiation – telecommunications and heating food
  2. Infrared radiation – infrared lamps to keep food warm in restaurants
  3. Radio waves
  4. High-Power RF – aircraft radar

 Ionizing Radiation

   There are three main kinds of ionizing radiation:

  1. Alpha particles, which include two protons and two neutrons
  2. Beta particles, which are essentially electrons
  3. Gamma rays and x-rays, which are pure energy (photons).

Ingestion of contaminants in groundwater, surface water, soil, and food.

Drinking water
Food from gardens
Swimming Pool

Inhalation of contaminants in air (dust, vapor, gases), including those volatilized or otherwise emitted from groundwater, surface water, and soil.

Air Strippers
Burn Pits

Swamp Coolers
Occupational Exposures

For more information see: ATSDR – PHA Guidance Manual – Chapter 6: Exposure Evaluation: Evaluating Exposure Pathways

I am not a doctor or attorney, and cannot give medical advice or legal advice.

If you, a friend, or loved one has been injured or died as a result of the contamination at a DOD Superfund Site please follow the steps that are outlined at Get Help.

The views and opinions expressed in this website/articles are those of the authors and
do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any agency of the U.S. government

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