Contamination is the presence of an unwanted constituent, contaminant or impurity in a material, physical body, natural environment, workplace, etc. Contaminants are biological, chemical, physical or radiological substance.
"Contamination" has also more specific meanings in science:
- In chemistry, the term usually describes a single constituent, but in specialized fields the term can also mean chemical mixtures, even up to the level of cellular materials. All chemicals contain some level of impurity. Contamination may be recognized or not and may become an issue if the impure chemical is mixed with other chemicals or mixtures and causes additional chemical reactions. The additional chemical reactions can sometimes be beneficial, in which case the label ‘contaminant’ is replaced with reactant or catalyst. If the additional reactions are detrimental, other terms are often applied such as toxin, poison or pollutant, depending on the type of molecule involved. A major fraction of chemistry is involved with identifying, isolating, and studying contaminants.
- In environmental chemistry the term is in some cases virtually equivalent to pollution, where the main interest is the harm done on a large scale to humans or to organisms or environments that are important to humans.
- In radiation protection the radioactive contamination is radioactive substances on surfaces, or within solids, liquids or gases (including the human body), where their presence is unintended or undesirable, or the process giving rise to their presence in such places.
- Also used less formally to refer to a quantity, namely the amount of radioactivity in a location or on a surface, or on a unit area of a surface, such as a square meter or centimeter.
- Contamination may include residual radioactive material remaining at a site after the completion of decommissioning of a site where there was a nuclear reactor, such as a power plant, experimental reactor, isotope reactor or a nuclear powered ship or submarine.
- The term radioactive contamination may have a connotation that is not intended. The term refers only to the presence of radioactivity, and gives no indication of the magnitude of the hazard involved.
- In food chemistry and medicinal chemistry, the term "contamination" is used to describe harmful intrusions, such as the presence of toxins or pathogens in food or pharmaceutical drugs, see food contaminant.
- In forensic science, a contaminant can be fingerprints, hair, skin or DNA from first responders or from sources not related to the ongoing investigation, such as family members or friends of the victim who are not suspects.
- In the biological sciences, accidental introduction of "foreign" material ('contamination') can seriously distort the results of experiments where small samples are used. In cases where the contaminant is a living microorganism, it can often multiply and take over the experiment, especially cultures, and render them useless.
- In geology and especially geochemistry, it can have similar effects where even a few grains of "modern" dust can distort results of sophisticated experiments.
- the term "contamination" is sometimes used to describe accidental transfers of organisms from one natural environment to another.
- it has even been used in the "directed panspermia" hypothesis about the origin of life on Earth, which suggests that visiting aliens accidentally infected the planet with microbes from their own world.
- International Atomic Energy Agency (2007). IAEA Safety Glossary: Terminology Used in Nuclear Safety and Radiation Protection (PDF). Vienna: IAEA. ISBN 92-0-100707-8.
- International Atomic Energy Agency (2010). Programmes and Systems for Source and Environmental Radiation Monitoring. Safety Reports Series No. 64. Vienna: IAEA. p. 234. ISBN 978-92-0-112409-8.
- Crick, F. H.; Orgel, L. E. (1973). "Directed Panspermia". Icarus. 19 (3): 341–348. Bibcode:1973Icar...19..341C. doi:10.1016/0019-1035(73)90110-3