According to the Encyclopedia of Clinical Neuropsychology, toxins are most simply defined as poisons. Going strictly by definition, a toxin is different from a poison in that the former is produced by a biological process and the latter is not biologically derived. Venoms are considered toxins that are delivered via injection (bite, sting). However, in common parlance, even among various scientific disciplines, the terms “toxin” and “poison” are used relatively interchangeably. In keeping with this common usage, “toxic exposure” is defined here to be a direct or an indirect contact with any natural or man-made substances or agents that can lead to deleterious changes in body structure or function, including illness or death.
In the workplace, toxic exposure occurs when employees come in direct or indirect contact with hazardous toxins or dangerous chemicals that may increase the risk of illness, disease, or even death. This exposure can happen in many ways, including inhalation and skin contact, and the effects are not always obvious until much later.
Toxic exposure can happen to anyone, but workers who deal with chemicals on a regular basis are most at-risk. Construction workers, factory workers, oil-spill cleanup crews, welders, and pipe cleaners are just a few of the occupations that may be exposed to hazardous toxins.
Employees have a right to work in a safe and healthy workplace. By law, when hazardous chemicals and/or toxins are present in the workplace, employers are required to provide employees as well as emergency personnel with Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS). These sheets outline the proper procedures for handling or working with a potentially dangerous substance. Workplaces which use dangerous chemicals and hazardous waste must follow strict safeguards to keep the public and workers safe from exposure to toxins. Unfortunately, that doesn’t always happen. Accidents, as well as acts of willful neglect, can occur that put everyone at risk.
Many of Louisiana’s top industries deal with toxic chemicals on a regular basis, and while they provide jobs and stability for families in the state, they can also be very dangerous occupations.
One of the most notable instances of toxic exposure in the state is the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill in 2010. Government officials estimate that the explosion of the oil rig may have spilled as much as 60,000 barrels of oil a day into the Gulf of Mexico until the flow was finally stopped 84 days later. In addition to the massive environmental and economic damage, the spill put the health of clean-up workers and the general public in grave danger.
In addition to the dangers that the oil itself caused, the cleanup involved a large amount of Corexit oil dispersant which had not undergone toxicology studies at the time of its use. Later studies found that the dispersant contained chemicals that may cause cancer, skin and eye irritation and respiratory problems among other issues. The spill and resulting cleanup led to hundreds of reports of acute toxic exposure, and the effects were lasting.
Columbia University studied the effects among children in Louisiana and Florida and found that more than 40 percent of parents who lived less than 10 miles from the coast at the time of the Deepwater Horizon event had been directly exposed, and more than a third of those reported that their children showed some physical or mental health symptoms.