Minimizing Health Risks from Paint

Limiting the hazards of Painting Picture

One of the easiest and most impactful ways to freshen up your space is to paint the walls. Unfortunately, many traditional paints off-gas Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) while they are being applied and for years after. So while your walls will look fresh, the air you are breathing might contain toxins.

Painting the interior of your home, removing older paints, or simply storing paint improperly can increase health risks to occupants due to the emission of toxic chemicals and the dust raised by sanding painted surfaces. These chemicals and particulates can lead to indoor air quality problems and may pose serious health risks. Babies, who have a greater rate of oxygen consumption than adults, are much more susceptible to harm from breathing in pollutants.
Among the immediate symptoms that are sometimes experienced with exposure to VOCs (whether from paint or other sources) are eye, nose, and throat irritation, allergic skin reaction, nausea, headaches, dizziness, fatigue, memory impairment, and sometimes chronic sensitization to other substances. Longer-term exposures have been linked by some researchers to some cancers.

Many experts agree that most emissions occur during application of paint and the first few days of drying, but some contend that harmful paint fumes continue to off-gas in your home for years after painting (especially for oil-based paints). Currently, there are no regulations for the homeowners or occupants regarding the chemicals in paint and related supplies, but there are healthy choices you can make when choosing to repaint your home:

  • Choose a non-toxic paint stripper that is biodegradable and does not contain methylene chloride.
  • Choose a water-based Low- or Zero-VOC paint. Less than 8 grams/Liter (g/L) can be considered Zero-VOC. Below 80 g/L is considered Low-VOC, with 100-400 g/L is standard. Remember, “low-odor” is not the same as Low-VOC.
  • Check for other chemicals. Solvents, heavy metals and crystalline silica are sometimes added to and are considered carcinogens if inhaled (which can occur when sanding or scraping). Ammonia is used to inhibit bacteria and mold, pesticides are included to repel insects, and “mildewcides,” included to prevent mildew.
  • Do a spot test. Not only can you test color, but you can also test if you have a reaction to the paint. Zero-VOC means the paint cannot give off specific VOCs, not ALL

Because non-regulated VOCs are can differ from brand to brand, your reactions can differ, though the paints are labeled Zero-VOC.

If DIY is your style, here are a few tips to keeping you and your home healthy while you are painting:

  • Wear a quality mask to avoid breathing in particulates while sanding. Old paint is particularly toxic. After sanding, leave the room closed up and unoccupied for several hours.
  • To clean up dust, mop it with damp paper towels. Do not vacuum or sweep – you will leave a lot of dust in the air.
  • Ventilate! Provide as much air circulation as possible, especially if you are painting the ceiling. Fumes rise as paint dries, so ceiling fumes dissipate more slowly.
  • Store paint safely. Even water-based paints should be stored with the lids tightly closed away from HVAC systems that can circulate the air around the cans.