Paints – Hazardous Home

Paint Products Fact Sheet

Originally Published 2006

America’s homes and garages are full of toxic and hazardous products. Paints, pesticides, lye, acids, and solvents are examples of the products that can be dangerous to your family and pollute the environment when they are thrown away. Many of these items are not even needed. This fact sheet has been developed to help you make the switch to safer products and alternatives.

Paint is big business. Manufacturers distribute over one billion gallons of paint annually to the tune of $10.7 billion dollars in the United States alone. While most homeowners have one or more cans of paint in their garage, few of them recognize the potential health hazards and environmental toxicity if it is not used, stored and disposed of correctly.

Water based paints are considered the safest to use. Paints manufactured before 1990 may, however, contain mercury, which even at low levels of exposure can cause neurological damage without noticeable symptoms. Small percentages of alcohol solvents and glycol ethers are also found in most water based paints.

Although the EPA banned the use of lead in oil based paint in 1981, oil based paints still contain toxicants which can be easily inhaled, ingested or absorbed through the skin and into the bloodstream. A few of the chemicals are known carcinogens, others cause nervous system depression, and most have not been adequately tested for their long-term health effects. And, environmentally, the volatile organic compounds (VOCs) found in oil based solvents contribute to photochemical smog.

Material Safety Data Sheets are available for paint products and may be helpful in listing the components of the paint and potential health effects. You may request a copy from the retail store where you buy paint.

What are paints?

Paints are composed of resins (film formers), diluents (solvents), pigments (color), and additives. The paint products category also includes coatings such as varnish, shellac, polyurethane, and stains. Paints are generally categorized on the basis of the solvent. The two main categories are oil based and water based (latex) paints. Depending on the type of paint selected, other paint related products such as thinners and brush cleaners may be required. Latex and other water based paint products are the safest to use, require no organic solvents, dry quickly, and flow evenly.

What are solvents?

Solvents are liquids that dissolve other substances and act as carriers for pigments. Useful properties of solvents in paint products are volatility (fast drying), ease of application, even flow and the ability to dissolve paint and grease. Oil based paint solvents pose several immediate and long term health and environmental concerns.

Health Concerns

While the VOC levels in paint products sold in the United States have been reduced to help control pollution, levels may still be high enough to pose potential health problems. All organic solvents are toxic in varying degrees. It is in fact the useful properties of organic solvents that add to their hazard. Because they are volatile, there is an inhalation risk; or because they can dissolve many things, they can be absorbed through the skin. They may cause as minor a problem as skin rash or, if swallowed, they may be fatal.

Read Warning Labels

To reduce the risk to your health, select the least toxic product available for the job.

Least Toxic: Water based (latex). Check that mercury is not included as an additive to prevent mildew.

Moderately Toxic: Many of these ingredients are found in spray paints, paint removers and lacquers. All are highly flammable. methyl alcohol acetone isopropyl alcohol ethyl alcohol ethyl acetate methyl ethyl ketone.

Most Toxic: The following are known as aromatic or chlorinated hydrocarbons. They can be absorbed through the skin and therefore enter the bloodstream more easily than through inhalation only.

Benzene: a carcinogen which causes aplastic anemia (damaged bone marrow), and leukemia, and a probable tetatogen (causes birth defects).

Toluene: a probable mutagen (causes inherited changes in gene structure) and teratogen.

Xylene: a probable teratogen.

Methylene Chloride (dichloromethane): a probable carcinogen. Inhalation of vapors increases carbon monoxide levels in blood, reducing oxygen supply to vital organs. Other potential effects include damage to central nervous system or skin burns. It decompresses in the presence of flame or heat into highly toxic phosgene gas.

Recognize Signs of Exposure

Learn to recognize the warning signs of exposure to organic solvents so that you don’t become a victim of poisoning.

Acute (effects that occur during or immediately after exposure): irritability nervousness depression irregular heartbeat weakness skin redness watery eyes dizziness burning sensation dry throat nausea headaches itching

Long-term (effects that develop after intense or prolonged exposure):

Chronic effects from frequent or prolonged exposure to organic solvents have not been thoroughly researched. Increased risk from exposure may cause permanent damage to liver, kidneys, bone marrow, and central nervous system.