Paint is pigment dissolved in solvent. It can then be applied to walls or other surfaces. In addition to these two ingredients, other ingredients or additives are often present.
Most paints have some level of Volatile organic compounds or VOCs. VOCs are released into the air as gases from solids or liquids that contain organic chemicals, like paints and varnishes.
Exposure to VOCs can sometimes lead to short or long-term health effects. So, you should aim to limit your use of products that generate VOCs and take safety measures when using them. Low-VOC and no-VOC paint products are available for purchase. When shopping for paint, check the labels to get an idea of a product’s VOC levels.
There are 2 types of paints, water-based paints and oil-based paints. Water-based paints, compared to oil-based paints give off lower levels of chemical vapours and VOCs. Aside from these types of paints, there is also lead-based paints.
Lead is very toxic and causes a variety of health problems. Though no one uses lead-based paints nowadays, structures built before 1978 may contain lead-based paint. People living in a building with lead-based paint need to take extra precautions when performing home improvement projects that may expose them to peeling or chipped paint.
But even if the paint you’re using is not lead-based, in can still cause irritation if they get onto your skin. They can also be potentially harmful when swallowed, particularly oil-based paints. To add to that, the fumes from these types of paints can irritate your eyes, nose, or throat, which eventually goes away when you go out into fresh air.
Inhaling VOCs can lead to these short-term effects:
- irritation of the eyes, nose, or throat
- dizziness or light-headedness
- trouble breathing
Exposure to high concentrations of VOCs for extended periods can cause long-term damage to certain systems of the body, like the nervous system, the liver and kidneys.
Exposure to strong paint fumes can trigger conditions such as asthma. There is a study published in 2010 that investigated VOC levels in children’s bedrooms. They found that higher levels of VOC called propylene glycol and glycol ethers led to a greater likelihood of conditions, such as asthma, eczema and rhinitis.
The risk of household paints affecting an unborn baby is low, although the risk of harm may relatively be greater when working with paints that contain solvents other than water. There is a study that non-occupational exposure to paint fumes during the first trimester of pregnancy may increase the risk of some congenital abnormalities. Also, a study on non-occupational exposure to fumes from oil-based paints prior to conception found that exposure may actually increase birth weight and lead to an increased incidence of macrosomia or the fetus to be significantly larger than average.
So, if you’re pregnant, and you have serious concerns about the effects of paint fumes on your unborn baby, you should avoid painting while pregnant and hire a professional.
A study also links organic solvents in paint fumes to multiple sclerosis or MS. The investigators evaluated over 2,000 people that had MS and compared them with almost 3,000 controls.
They observed the interplay between exposure to organic solvents, cigarette smoke, and genetic factors and how these things may contribute to MS.
In the study, they observed that exposure to organic solvents increased the risk of MS. Also longer exposure times, increases the risk. Also, individuals with specific genetic risk factors for MS and exposure to organic solvents were about seven times more likely to develop MS than people who are negative for both genetic factors and organic solvent exposure. To add to that, people with genetic risk factors who were exposed to both smoking and organic solvents had a 30-fold increase in risk compared to non-exposed people without genetic risk factors.
The authors of the study note that you won’t necessarily get MS from exposure to organic solvents. However, you may wish to avoid them (including smoking) in order to reduce MS risk, especially if you have a family history of the condition.
So how do you reduce your exposure to VOCs when painting indoors. Here are ways to do so:
- Use indoor paints and select a product that will generate less VOCs, such as water-based paints.
- Read safety information on the product label carefully. You may want to use a respirator to lower your risk of inhaling VOCs.
- Always paint in a well-ventilated area. Dry weather is conducive for indoor painting so you can open some windows. A box fan in the window can help direct air flow to the outside.
- Take frequent breaks to get some fresh air.
- After painting, keep windows as open as possible for three days to allow paint fumes to exit the room.
- Tightly close any leftover paint containers to prevent vapours from leaking into the surrounding area. If you don’t plan to keep them, properly dispose of leftover paint.
If in case you get exposed to paint or its fumes, be sure you reference the safety information on the label of the product that you’re using for any specific first-aid information. Here are some guidelines for treating exposure to paint or paint fumes:
- On skin. Wash the affected area with soap and warm water.
- In eyes. Rinse your eyes with running water for 15 to 20 minutes. Then rest your eyes by keeping them closed for 15 minutes. If you experience pain or problems with your vision, it is best to seek medical attention.
- Swallowing. Drink a small amount of milk or water while watching for symptoms of stomach upset like nausea, vomiting, or diarrhoea. If needed, call 911.
- If you are feeling dizzy or lightheaded. Immediately seek fresh air and call 911.
Many paint products contain VOCs that can cause both short-term and long-term health effects. Ergo, you should minimize your exposure to these chemicals whenever possible. When painting indoors, you should always do so safely or get the help of professionals.