Toxicology Covered – from A to Z

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When it comes to toxicology, ATSDR has you covered from A (acetone) to Z (zinc).

Toxicology is the study of poisons and their effects on people, animals, and the environment. ATSDR toxicologist Moiz Mumtaz, PhD, points out that a toxic substance doesn’t have to come from a bottle with a skull and crossbones on it to be harmful to your health.

“Pretty much everything can be toxic,” he cautions. “It’s the dose that’s key.”

ATSDR helps prevent harmful exposures and diseases related to toxic substances. Two of the main ways it does this are through field work and through the Toxic Substances Portal.

Field Work

man drinking water

In 2010, in Pavillion, Wyoming, residents complained of a pungent, acidic smell coming from their faucets and wells. ATSDR officials went to Pavillion to help. They interviewed residents and took water samples from residents. They discovered methane gas, low levels of petroleum hydrocarbons, and extremely high levels of sodium and sulfur in the water supplies.

ATSDR issued the following recommendations:

People who are using private well water should use other water for cooking and drinking.

  • Inorganic constituents in the water including sodium, magnesium, iron, selenium, sulfate, and nitrates could cause health effects.
  • Petroleum hydrocarbons, which are not usually found in drinking water, were found in many wells.
  • No health risks are expected from breathing in water while showering or using evaporative coolers.

People whose wells contain methane should take specific precautions.

  • Scientists do not believe there is enough methane in well water to cause health problems or explosions. However, people whose wells contain methane should take extra steps to be cautious.
  • Use ventilation when taking showers. Open a window or door or run a bathroom fan.
  • Avoid fires or ignition sources in closed rooms where water is running.

When ATSDR officials travel to conduct site assessments, Mumtaz says, they look to connect with the public on a personal level, following a “whatever hurts you, hurts me” approach. Also, he said, when explaining the toxic chemicals’ harmful effects, they avoid complicated scientific language which can be confusing.

“We try to explain it in ways that people can understand,” Mumtaz says.

Pavillion residents were thankful ATSDR officials came to investigate their concerns. As a result of ATSDR’s investigation, conducted in partnership with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, residents of Pavillion received a continued supply of bottled water.

ATSDR Toxic Substances Portal

ATSDR Toxic Substances Portal

ATSDR’s Toxic Substances Portal has many resources, such as a search engine, state map, index, public health statements, Toxicological Profiles, and ToxFAQs that you can use to learn about toxic substances.

The search engine allows you to look up a toxic substance. You can create a state map that will show specific locations where the toxic substance has been found and provide links to ATSDR reports.

The index is an alphabetical list of 199 toxic substances. Clicking on a toxic substance takes you to its information page, which includes a link to its Toxicological Profile. The Tox Profiles give extensive overviews of each substance.

However, the Toxicological Profiles are written for specific targeted audiences: toxicologists and researchers. For nonscientific audiences, there are the public health statements and ToxFAQs.

A public health statement is a summary of a toxic substance’s entire Toxicological Profile. It presents information in a question-and-answer format that addresses the most frequently asked questions about exposure to toxic substances that are found at hazardous waste sites and the substances’ effects.

The ToxFAQs use information from the Tox Profiles and public health statements and present it in easy-to-understand fact sheets. The fact sheets also provide answers to the most frequently asked questions about the toxic substance.

For More Information

You can access ATSDR’s Toxic Substance Portal for resources on toxic chemicals at

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Page last reviewed: September 5, 2013
Page last updated: September 5, 2013