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Cumulative Risk from Airborne Chemicals

Questions and answers about assessing and addressing risk from cumulative exposure to airborne chemicals.

Normally, people are exposed to many chemicals from many sources every day—both human-made and naturally occurring—in food, water, soil, and air. For example:

◦naturally occurring chemicals and food additives
◦emissions from cars, dry cleaners, and industrial sources
◦natural minerals such as arsenic and by-products from disinfection in drinking water
◦chemicals from soil that volatilize (become vapors)
◦emissions from vegetation and wildfires

Exposure to chemicals is associated with some level of risk of adverse effects on health (defined as damage to normal functions of the body, which can include such problems as irritation and lung disease, as well as cancer). The body can generally remove harmful chemicals, but sometimes it may not be able to get rid of a chemical before it can cause harm. As the amount of chemical a person is exposed to increases, so does the likelihood of harm. Exposure of a person to one chemical from multiple sources is called aggregate exposure. Exposure from multiple sources is called cumulative exposure.