To appreciate non-toxic materials and products, you must understand what toxicity is as well as the effect on a substructure of the organism, such as a cell (cytotoxicity) or an organ (organotoxicity), such as the liver (hepatotoxicity). By extension, the word may be metaphorically used to describe toxic effects on larger and more complex groups, such as the family unit or society at large.
A central concept of toxicology is that effects are dose-dependent; even water can lead to water intoxication when taken in large enough doses, whereas for even a very toxic substance such as snake venom there is a dose below which there is no detectable toxic effect.
There are generally three types of toxic entities; chemical, biological, and physical:
- Chemical toxicants include inorganic substances such as lead, mercury, asbestos, hydrofluoric acid, and chlorine gas, organic compounds such as methyl alcohol, most medications, and poisons from living things.
- Biological toxicants include bacteria and viruses that can induce disease in living organisms. Biological toxicity can be difficult to measure because the "threshold dose" may be a single organism. Theoretically one virus, bacterium or worm can reproduce to cause a serious infection. However, in a host with an intact immune system the inherent toxicity of the organism is balanced by the host's ability to fight back; the effective toxicity is then a combination of both parts of the relationship. A similar situation is also present with other types of toxic agents.
- Physical toxicants are substances that, due to their physical nature, interfere with biological processes. Examples include coal dust and asbestos fibers, both of which can ultimately be fatal if inhaled.
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