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Chemicals Affecting the Respiratory Tract

Many toxic chemicals can damage the respiratory airways, with potentially life-threatening effects. Ammonia, various alkalis (e.g., bleach and sodium hydroxide), hydrochloric and sulfuric acid, vesicants (e.g., sulfur mustard) and other corrosive agents affect the upper airways, the portion of the respiratory tract that begins at the mouth and nose and ends at the larynx (voice box). Inhalation of these chemicals can cause acute inflammation, painful ulcerations, increased secretions, and difficulties in breathing and swallowing. Secondary bacterial infections may further exacerbate the initial injury. Damage to the upper airway can lead to respiratory failure and death. Exposure can also lead to long-term health problems. For example, chronic respiratory problems, such as scarring and narrowing of the trachea, have been observed in Iranians exposed to sulfur mustard during the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s. (Vesicating chemicals is discussed in more detail in Skin, Eyes, and Mucous Membranes.)

Some industrial chemicals, including ammonia, chlorine, phosgene, and perfluoroisobutylene (PFIB) can cause lower respiratory tract injuries, particularly life-threatening pulmonary edema. Pulmonary edema—the leakage of fluid into the lungs—prevents oxygen delivery to the blood, ultimately preventing oxygen from reaching the brain, kidneys, and other organs. Symptoms may be immediate or delayed; chlorine causes immediate airway irritation and pain, whereas phosgene exposure may not be evident for 24 to 48 hours (see Table 1). People who survive a single, acute exposure to respiratory airway toxins generally show little or no long-term health problems, although some may eventually develop asthma or chronic bronchitis. Individuals at greatest risk are those with pre-existing heart or lung disease.

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Last Updated February 29, 2008