A toxic tort occurs when a person or organisation negligently exposes someone to a hazardous substance and causes harm.
If you have sustained an injury following exposure to a toxic or hazardous substance, you may be able to make a toxic tort compensation claim.
What is defined as 'hazardous' in a toxic tort claim?
The term applies to a wide range of substances and preparations "which have the potential to cause harm to health if they are ingested, inhaled, or are absorbed by, or come into contact with, the skin, or other body membranes."
These substances occur in various forms, including solids, liquids, vapours, gases and fumes and simple asphyxiants (gases and vapours which, when present at high concentrations in air may displace the oxygen content to such an extent that life cannot be supported).
The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) includes around 400 products in its list of workplace exposure limits within the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations (COSHH).
How might a toxic tort arise?
Workers may be exposed to dangerous chemicals through their occupation, although exposure levels should be controlled and monitored through COSHH. Some occupational diseases may not manifest until years after exposure.
Other work-related illnesses may be develop following incidents where the substances are accidentally released into the environment. These environmental hazards may be caused by negligent substance handling or disposal.
For example, aerially-sprayed pesticides and herbicides may easily contaminate the air, ground and water if used incorrectly, and may escape into water courses if not disposed of properly.
Some environmental hazards may occur in the wake of catastrophic accidents - such as factory explosions or building collapses - leading to the release of hazardous substances.
Such incidents may have negative health consequences for those living and working in the vicinity, and give rise to 'multi-party' toxic torts, where several affected individuals make a joint claim against the negligent party.
What are the effects on health?
The effects of exposure to a toxic substance depend on the level of exposure, the substance and the method of exposure.
For example, carbon tetrachloride discharged from chemical plants and other industrial activities is toxic by inhalation, ingestion and dermal exposure. Skin or eye contact may cause irritation; inhalation and ingestion may cause a reduced level of consciousness, sickness, headache, dizziness, gastric upset, stomach pain, and breathing difficulties. Exposure may also damage liver and kidneys, leading to coma and death in severe cases. Carbon tetrachloride may also be carcinogenic.
As another example, benzene is toxic by both inhalation and ingestion and may enter the environment through leaching from gas storage tanks and landfills. Short-term exposure may be irritating to eyes and can result in drowsiness, tachycardia, headaches, tremors, confusion and unconsciousness. Longer (chronic) low level exposure may cause the onset of a range of diseases giving rise to workplace cancer claims.
The effects of other hazardous substances are detailed by Public Health England.
What happens if a person falls ill through exposure?
Anyone whose health is affected by an environmental hazard should see his GP to explain the symptoms and potential source of exposure. This may help to identify the substance he has been exposed to and ensure the correct treatment is given.
If the hazard was due to negligence and therefore could have been prevented, it may be possible to bring a claim for compensation against the liable third party.
Claims for toxic tort involve thorough investigation of the parties responsible and a detailed assessment of the claimants health and its longer-term impact.
Gaynor Haliday, Legal researcher
About the author
Gaynor Haliday is an experienced legal researcher and published author. She has had numerous articles published in the press and is a legal industry commentator.