Painting a house can present some serious health hazards: Enamel paint and other paints often contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that can have toxic effects on the brain and body. Working with these solvents requires special protective measures. What are these chemicals, what are their effects and how can you protect yourself?
Enamel paint may contain a wide variety of solvents. Automotive enamel paint typically contains larger quantities and more dangerous versions of these compounds than house paint, and outdoor house paint presents a more toxic profile than indoor house paint.
Typical toxic solvents used in enamel paint and other household chemicals include toluene, also known as methylbenzene; benzene; ethylbenzene; and xylenes, according to the Ohio Bureau of Environmental Health. Mineral spirits (also known as white spirit or Stoddard solvent) may occur in paint and can also have neurotoxic effects. Acetone, also used as an enamel paint solvent, has a much lower toxicity.
In addition to the above solvents, enamel paint may also contain lead. While U.S. and most European manufacturers no longer make lead paint due to regulatory bans, paints from many countries in Asia, Africa and South America may still have a high lead content, according to an October 2009 article in the journal "Environmental Research." Lead can cause permanent brain damage, leading to cognitive and physical impairment.
Exposure to solvents such as xylenes, benzene, ethylbenzene and methylbenzene (toluene) can produce immediate toxic effects on the brain, causing symptoms such as dizziness, headache and poor coordination.
Repeated high concentration exposure to solvents in this category, such as that observed in intentional abuse, can cause vision damage, cerebellar and brain-stem damage, and other forms of permanent brain damage, according to research by Spencer and Schaumburg in a 1985 issue of the "Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment and Health." Excessive exposure to mineral spirits over time can also increase the risk of dementia, according to the article.
For indoor painting, exposure to toxic VOCs in enamel paint can be avoided completely: U.S. manufacturers from Dutch Boy to Miller to Benjamin Moore all sell low and zero-VOC interior paints in a wide range of colors. These paints also have a significant convenience advantage; they dry quickly, and barely give off any odor, allowing the building to return to use shortly after painters finish their work.
Low-VOC exterior paints are not as easy to acquire. A few boutique paint suppliers like Yolo Colorhouse have begun offering them, but in general, finding less-toxic paint for outside work can be difficult. Fortunately, outside areas offer better ventilation, leading to less exposure to these toxic solvents.
When working with enamel paint that contains a high quantity of solvents—whether painting a house, a car, or a smaller project—make sure the area is as well-ventilated as possible. If still in doubt, wear a respirator mask to prevent the toxic effects of solvent inhalation. Paper masks do not block solvent fumes. These safety measures have particular importance when working with spray paints, which can put equally toxic propellants into the air as well. Even outdoors, a respirator helps to limit exposure.