Government of Nova Scotia Government of Nova Scotia Nova Scotia, Canada


Inspection, Compliance and Enforcement

Chemicals and Hazardous Substances

Every day Nova Scotians purchase and use products, consume water and food and come into contact with materials that contain chemicals. Many of these chemicals are designed to make life easier, healthier and more efficient.  Exposure to most of these chemicals is not harmful. However, in some cases, exposure can affect your health, if risks aren’t properly managed or chemicals are not used as intended.

Chemicals and Human Health

The health risks of chemicals depend on several factors, such as:

  • The type of chemical
  • The amount you’re exposed to
  • When and how long you are exposed
  • How you’re exposed (through food, water, air, products and so on)
  • Your age and general state of health

Some people may be more sensitive to chemical exposure than others. Groups that may be at higher risk include children, pregnant women, and seniors.

Potential Health Effects

Accidents or incorrect use of household chemical products may cause immediate health effects, such as burns and poisoning. There can also be longer-term health effects from chemicals. When these occur, they are usually the result of exposure to certain chemicals over a long period of time. Depending on the chemical, these longer-term health effects might include:

  • Organ damage
  • Weakening of the immune system
  • Reproductive problems and birth defects
  • Effects on the mental cognitive or physical development of children
  • Cancer

Reducing Risks

You can take steps to protect yourself and your family from chemical risks:

  • Read and follow all directions when using household chemicals. If you don’t understand something on the label, contact the manufacturer.
  • Open windows to provide ventilation during and after use of certain household products, since some of these can release chemicals into your indoor air.
  • Keep all chemical products out of sight and out of reach of children and animals. Make sure child-resistant containers are working.
  • Teach children that hazard symbols on containers mean “Danger! Do no touch.”
  • Consult the Air Quality Health Index, and consider adjusting outdoor activities when air quality is poor, especially if you have heart or breathing problems.

Chemicals and Children’s Health

Children are more vulnerable than adults to chemicals found in the environment for many reasons.

  • They typically have a higher intake of air, water and food in relation to their body weight.
  • Their bodies and body systems are still developing and may be less able to process or eliminate some chemicals. This could make children more sensitive to harm from these substances.
  • Exposure to certain environmental chemicals during pregnancy or early childhood, when they may be sensitive to developmental effects, may result in negative effects on children’s health.
  • Children spend more time in direct contact with surfaces when they crawl and will often put things (toys, dirt, etc.) in their mouths. Both of these behaviours mean they can accidentally ingest harmful chemicals.
  • Young children tend to have a less varied diet than adults. As a result, they may eat larger quantities, on a body weight basis, of a smaller range of foods. This unique diet may result in a greater exposure to certain chemicals if present in food.
  • Exposure to environmental chemicals beginning at a young age can potentially lead to longer-term cumulative exposures over a lifetime which could then result in effects. Some childhood exposures could affect health in adulthood.
  • Children are largely unaware of and have minimal or little control over the hazards to which they may be exposed.

Children may be exposed to chemicals in indoor and outdoor air, water, soil, house dust, food, and consumer products, in the settings where they live, learn and play. In addition, during pregnancy  the fetus can be exposed to chemicals, as certain chemicals can cross the placenta. Nursing infants may also be exposed to chemicals that may be present in breast milk.

Health risks associated with a specific chemical depend on the hazard (its potential to cause health effects) and the dose (the amount of chemical to which you are exposed). The timing of the exposure is also very important. For example, specific stages of pregnancy are now recognized as critical windows of susceptibility to the effects of some chemicals.

Protecting Children’s Health

The easiest place to reduce children’s exposure is in the home where chemical products such as cleaning liquids and powders, polishes, drain cleaners, paint thinners, windshield washing fluid and pesticides are commonly found.

  • Keep all chemical and drug products out of sight and reach of children.
  • Read warnings on the labels and follow package instructions.
  • Make sure that child-resistant containers are working.
  • Use solvents in well-ventilated areas and never mix chemicals together as some mixtures can produce harmful gases.
  • Keep household chemicals, pesticides and drug products in their original containers and store paints, varnishes and other similar products outside, away from the house and in suitable containers.

More Information

Health Canada