Skip to Main Content


  • Absorption is the transfer of a chemical from the site of exposure, usually an external or internal body surface, into the systemic circulation.

  • Toxicants are removed from the systemic circulation by biotransformation, excretion, and storage at various sites in the body.

  • Excretion is the removal of xenobiotics from the blood and their return to the external environment via urine, feces, exhalation, etc.


The disposition of a chemical or xenobiotic is defined as the composite actions of its absorption, distribution, biotransformation, and elimination. The quantitative characterization of xenobiotic disposition is termed pharmacokinetics or toxicokinetics (see Chapter 7).

The toxicity of a substance depends on the dose. The concentration of a chemical at the site of action is usually proportional to the dose, but the same dose of two or more chemicals may lead to vastly different concentrations in a particular target organ of toxicity owing to differences in the disposition of the chemicals. Various factors affecting disposition are depicted in Figure 5–1, such as (1) if the fraction absorbed or the rate of absorption is low, a chemical may never attain a sufficiently high concentration at a potential site of action to cause toxicity; (2) the distribution of a toxicant may be such that it is concentrated in a tissue other than the target organ, thus decreasing toxicity; (3) biotransformation of a chemical may result in the formation of less toxic or more toxic metabolites at a fast or slow rate with obvious consequences for the concentration and, thus, the toxicity at the target site; and (4) the more rapidly a chemical is eliminated from an organism, the lower will be its concentration and hence its toxicity in target tissues. If a chemical is distributed to and stored in fat, its elimination is likely to be slow because very low plasma levels preclude rapid renal clearance or other clearances.


Routes of absorption, distribution, and excretion of toxicants in the body. Black lines represent routes of absorption into the blood stream; blue lines designate distribution; green lines identify pathways of final excretion; red lines show enterohepatic circulation.

The skin, lungs, and alimentary canal are the main barriers that separate higher organisms from an environment containing a large number of chemicals. Toxicants must cross one or several of these incomplete barriers to exert deleterious effects. Only chemicals that are caustic and corrosive agents (acids, bases, salts, and oxidizers) and act topically at the point of contact are exceptions. A chemical absorbed into the bloodstream through any of these three barriers is distributed throughout the body, including the site where it produces damage, the target organ or target tissue. A chemical may have one or several target organs, and, in turn, several chemicals may have the same target ...

Pop-up div Successfully Displayed

This div only appears when the trigger link is hovered over. Otherwise it is hidden from view.