The present paper proposes a source-receptor model to schematically describe inhalation exposure to help understand the complex processes leading to inhalation of hazardous substances. The model considers a stepwise transfer of a contaminant from the source to the receptor. The conceptual model is constructed using three components, i.e. (i) the source, (ii) various transmission compartments and (iii) the receptor, and describes the contaminant's emission and its pattern of transport. Based on this conceptual model, a list of nine mutually independent principal modifying factors (MFs) is proposed: activity emission potential, substance emission potential, localized control, separation, segregation, dilution, worker behavior, surface contamination and respiratory protection. These MFs describe the exposure process at a high level of abstraction so that the model can be generically applicable. A list of exposure determinants underlying each of these principal MFs is proposed to describe the exposure process at a more detailed level. The presented conceptual model is developed in conjunction with an activity taxonomy as described in a separate paper. The proposed conceptual model and MFs should be seen as 'building blocks' for development of higher tier exposure models. © The Author 2008. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the British Occupational Hygiene Society.