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Health and Safety
Paint is easy to apply. Its hundreds of colors and shades
will help you express your own taste and creativity. At just
pennies per square foot, it's the least expensive decorating
tool of all.
And it not only beautifies your home and possessions it protects
If you're planning a painting project, while you're helping
protect your belongings, the paint industry wants to help
you protect yourself as well. Like many household products,
paint contains chemicals, and some of them can be hazardous
if not used correctly.
Paints are mixtures of pigments (for color), resins (for
binding power), and other additives to make them easier to
apply, faster-drying, etc. These ingredients are dissolved
in either water or organic solvents.
Water-based ( latex ) paints came on the market soon after
World War II. Today, around 80 percent of household paints,
exterior as well as interior, are water-based. The increasing
popularity of water-based formulations has gone a long way
toward reducing the potential hazards from improper use of
solvent-based paints: flammability or combustibility, and
possible health effects from inhaling solvent vapors or spray
Chances are that the paint you buy will be water-based. But
some kinds of products cannot be successfully formulated using
water, and still contain organic solvents. You need to know
the potential hazards associated with those products, and
how to avoid them. The label will tell you.
Reading a Paint Can Label
The first item on a precautionary label is a signal word,
such as WARNING or CAUTION. Directly underneath will be a
statement of the principal hazard, followed by any other hazards
associated with the product's ingredients. Below the hazard
information, you will see the precautions you need to take
(such as Open all doors and windows during use. ). The precautions
are followed by first-aid instructions in case of an accident,
and by any special instructions for storage, cleaning up spills,
or even disposing of leftover paint.
Some paints contain flammable or combustible materials. If
so, the label will read Warning: Flammable or Caution: Combustible.
In either case, you need to take these precautions:
Open all windows and doors to increase ventilation and disperse
fumes. (Don't use an electric fan, which could create sparks.)
Eliminate all sources of flame, sparks, and ignition. Put
out pilot lights by turning off the gas, and do not relight
until well after the room is free of fumes.
Don't use electrical equipment that could spark.
Make sure light bulbs aren't exposed to sudden breakage.
Clean up any spills promptly, and dispose of the spilled paint
and rags or other cleanup materials safely.
Keep cans closed when not in use.
Overexposure to ingredients in some paints can cause health
problems. Sometimes those problems are noticeable right away
(acute effects); sometimes the reaction to the overexposure
isn't observed until later (chronic effects).
The label will tell you about any potential health hazards
that may be associated with components of the product, and
advise you about ways to reduce your exposure so you can use
the product safely.
Some paints, like many other household products, may be poisonous
if ingested (eaten or drunk). To prevent poisoning, take these
Keep containers tightly closed when the product is not in
Keep paints and other household products out of children's
Before you open the can, read the label instructions for first-aid
advice in case of ingestion. (These vary from product to product,
depending on the ingredients.)
If paint is swallowed, follow the label instructions and call
a doctor or poison control center.
Preventing Overexposure to Solvent Fumes
Prolonged inhalation or skin contact with any hazardous components
in paint products can cause acute effects, such as dizziness,
headache, and nausea. Long-term overexposure to solvents can
cause chronic effects such as brain or nervous system damage.
And if some hazardous components are absorbed into the bloodstream
through contact with the skin, immediate or delayed health
effects could result.
You can reduce exposure in several ways:
Open all doors and windows to increase ventilation.
If your eyes water or you start to feel dizzy or nauseated,
leave the work area and breathe plenty of fresh air. If discomfort
lasts or you have difficulty breathing, see a doctor.
If you can't get enough ventilation in the work area, use
For solvent-based paints, make sure your respirator is labeled
NIOSH/MSHA Approved for Organic Vapors. Do not use a simple
dust mask; it won't protect you against solvent vapors!
Wear a long-sleeved shirt and long paints, splash goggles,
and butyl-rubber gloves to protect your hands (they will make
cleanup easier, too).
If you get paint on your skin, wash it off immediately with
plenty of soap and water.
If you get paint in your eyes, flush them with cold water
for 15 minutes, and get medical treatment.
Protecting Your Family When Renovating Your Home
Today's household paints do not contain lead but if you are
working in an older home (built in the 1960s or earlier),
there is a chance that there may be old lead-based paint on
walls or trim. If lead-based paint is in good condition (not
chipping or peeling), and if it isn't on a friction surface,
such as the places where windows slide up and down, it isn't
hazardous unless it's disturbed by sanding or scraping or
other renovations, which can result in lead-contaminated dust.
For complete information on how to protect your family during
renovations, see http://www.paintinfo.org/lead-paint/renovate.htm.
Disposing of Leftover Paint Safely
When you buy your paint, ask the salesperson to help you
figure out how much you need, based on the size of the room
or rooms, number of doors and windows, and the number of coats
you plan to apply.
Hopefully, you won't end up with more paint than you need
but if you do, be sure you know how to get rid of it in a
way that won't hurt the environment.
Paint manufacturers are beginning to include safe-disposal
instructions with other information on their labels. Except
in California, Washington and Minnesota, latex (water-based)
paints are considered nonhazardous. They can be mixed with
absorbent material and, when dried out, can be disposed of
with your regular trash.
If you have to dispose of solvent- or oil-based paint (or
latex if you live in one of the three states named above),
you should save the paint, tightly covered, for disposal in
a household hazardous waste collection program.
Environmental tip: Consider giving your leftover paint to
your neighbor, church, school, or other community organization
such as an amateur theater group and recycling the cans in
a steel can recycling program.
If you bought your paint in large containers (five-gallon
or larger) and there are babies or toddlers in your home,
don't be tempted to reuse the containers as buckets for household
cleaning. Very small children can fall headfirst into those
buckets, and drownings have resulted.
A FINAL WORD
Today's consumer paints are safer and easier to use than
ever before, and most of the precautions concerning their
safe use are simply common sense like turning off the electricity
before you start to fix a light switch. So before you begin
your project, read all the directions on the label, follow
them carefully and enjoy your new paint job!