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  • Writer's pictureDavid Brodsky

What paint should I use? (health perspective) - Part 1/4

Updated: Dec 27, 2023

The purpose of this two-part blog post is to try to answer the question, "is it possible to find a safe paint to paint my home with?"


At this point, it's fairly well known that lead is a toxic compound with various links to poor health outcomes. Gamboa et al (2022) writes that "exposure to lead-based paint in homes constructed prior to 1978 poses multiple hazards to children, usually via inhalation of lead dust, ingestion of lead paint chips, or both." Lead was a common painting ingredient up until 1960 when it was banned in Canada. Levallois et al. (2014) studied children's lead exposure in Montreal homes and found that "despite relatively low BLLs, tap water and house dust lead contribute to an increase of BLLs in exposed young children." Lead paint has been banned in Canada since 1960, which can allow readers to breathe a sigh of relief. However, the question then becomes, "are we in the clear?" Is lead the only ingredient in paint that mattered? Have all questions of paint toxicity been resolved? If they haven't how do we, as consumers and users of paint products, stay safe?


To the questions "are we in the clear" and "is lead the only ingredient that mattered?" the answers are a strong "no". Lundberg & Milatou-Smith (1998) did a study looking at cancer rates among Swedish paint workers during a period before the mid-1950s when benzene was still used as a solvent in the Swedish paint industry. They concluded that "employment in the Swedish paint industry before 1957 may have entailed some excess risk of lymphatic and hematopoietic tumors, particularly multiple myeloma." Today, a major concern about paint safety comes from the question of volatile organic compounds or VOCs. Mo et al. (2021) found that "solvent use and paint consumption are significant source sectors of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) emissions in China. The occupational painters have high risk of health effect due to exposure to high VOCs concentration." Nduka et al. (2019) found that "exposures to scrap car paint dust may be of significant public health importance in Nigeria as it can add to body burden of some carcinogenic heavy metals." Links to diseases outside of cancers have also been found. Hammond et al. (2005) found elevated risks of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease among painters when compared to welders or other factory assembly workers.


What is our risk exposure, as painters and consumers of paint, to the presence of toxic ingredients? Saironi et al. (2023) writes that "organic solvents such as aromatic hydrocarbons (mostly toluene), aliphatic hydrocarbons, ketones, alcohols, and esters, as well as metals such as aluminium, titanium, cobalt, chromium, and lead, are found in paints (8,9,10). However, although not all of these compounds are considered as carcinogenic the IARC, their mixture can impart a cancer risk (11,12), hearing loss (13), neurological issues(14), hepatic(15), and respiratory diseases." So, paints are mixes of potential dangerous chemicals, which should be very concerning to people who work with paint.


The question then, is do we basically say "well, life's short, toxicity is what it is, and if a job must be done, then just do it." I would argue not. There are in fact, safeguards in place. Kralikova et al. (2020) reports that "The EU Eco-label criteria for indoor and outdoor paints and varnishes reflects the best environmentally friendly products on the market which have high quality and performance standards. The EU Eco-label for indoor and outdoor paints and varnishes "The official European label for Greener Products” guarantees: • Minimised content of hazardous substances; • Reduced content of volatile organic compounds (VOCs): x g/l ; • Good performance for (both) indoor (and) or outdoor use." This is all to say that certain countries provide a standard for paints to determine their safe usage. So, it is possible at least to make a choice between safe and unsafe paints by consulting experts.


So, where do you find safe paints? I'll deal with that in Part 2.





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