Toxic torts arise in several contexts. People are typically exposed to toxic chemicals from pharmaceuticals, from consumer products, from the environment, in the home, and at work. Most toxic tort cases have arisen either from exposure to pharmaceutical drugs or occupational exposures. Most pharmaceutical toxic injury cases are mass tort cases, because drugs are consumed by thousands of people, many of whom become ill from a toxic drug. There have also been many occupational toxic tort cases, because industrial and other workers are often chronically exposed to toxic chemicals - more so than consumers and residents. Most of the law in this area arises from asbestos exposure, but thousands of toxic chemicals are used in industry and workers in these areas can experience a variety of toxic injuries. Unlike the general population, which is exposed to trace amounts of thousands of different chemicals in the environment, industrial workers are regularly exposed to much higher levels of chemicals and therefore have a greater risk of developing disease from particular chemical exposures than the general population. The home has recently become the subject of toxic tort litigation, mostly due to mold contamination, but also due to construction materials such as formaldehyde-treated wood and carpet. Toxic tort cases also arise when people are exposed to consumer products such as pesticides and suffer injury. Lastly, people can also be injured from environmental toxins in the air or in drinking water. In recent years, ambitious lawyers have increasingly filed environmental toxic tort cases.
Pharmaceutical toxic tort cases are often litigated against drug manufacturers and distributors, as well as prescribing physicians. However, pharmaceutical toxic tort cases differ from medical malpractice actions because they are essentially product liability cases, the defective product being the drug. Occupational toxic tort cases arise from work but differ from workers' compensation claims, because workers' compensation claims are made against the worker's employer, while an occupational toxic tort case usually must be brought against "third parties," i.e., people or entities other than the employer - usually manufacturers or distributors of chemicals or the machines or devices that expose the worker to the chemicals, or the owners and lessors of premises where the worker was exposed to the toxic chemicals. Some people also consider lawsuits claiming damage to real property to be toxic torts cases. However, real property contamination cases are qualitatively different from cases alleging toxic injuries to persons.