When it comes to determining which paint you should use, the only tool that I’m familiar with is the Safety Data Sheet (SDS). Can we trust SDSs? Well, they are made available on the same websites that paint-selling companies use to sell their products, so one would expect a conflict of interest. Nonetheless, the information that they provide can be analyzed and used to draw certain conclusions. For this analysis, I’ll be reviewing one paint from Behr. In Part 3 & Part 4, I’ll be comparing the Behr paint to another popular Home Depot - Glidden, as well as a “health conscious” brand ECOS.
Behr has a list of SDSs for its products . First, let’s look at Behr Dynasty Interior Matte - Ultra Pure White . There are six sections that I’ll be focused on, those pertaining to health - Hazard Identification, Handling and Storage, Exposure Controls, Physical and Chemical Properties, and Toxicological Information.
We can see skin sensitization and a precautionary statement. The first red flag here is “avoid breathing mist/vapors.” While you’re painting and when you live in the house, I believe that as a homeowner, you are exposed to mist and vapors from paint, so this doesn’t look great initially. The next important note is “contaminated work clothing should not be allowed out of the workplace” and “Take off contaminated clothing and wash it before reuse.” Note also “IF ON SKIN: Wash with plenty of water.” What do we learn from this? Don’t let paint touch your skin, don’t get it on your clothes, since it may touch your skin, and work in a well ventilated space whenever possible to avoid breathing vapors. What risks come from using this product?
Handling and Storage
Under this category, two important notes - “Avoid prolonged exposure” and “Wear appropriate personal protective equipment.” Again, these considerations might be troubling for painters. Homeowners are not exposed to paint, not really, unless the paint inside their home heats up during the summer and exudes VOCs into the air. I don’t know what the degree of that is, but it's not really a problem. Painters however, have to use these products over and over again, so cautioning against prolonged exposure is worrisome. What does the company consider to be appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE)? Painters masks, similar to n95s are sold in stores, would those be sufficient generally speaking to avoid breathing paint vapors as you work?
Under “Occupational Exposure Limits” the problematic ingredient is Titanium Dioxide, which has exposure limits as well as exposure limits as dust. When you sand, you create respirable dust particles full of titanium dioxide (my interpretation, this may not be accurate; however, I'm going to continue as though this is accurate). When sanding, it’s thus important to wear a fit-tested p100 half-face respirator. They’re inexpensive and multi-use (about $100 investment will last you for 30 usages, and then the cartridges are replaceable at $30 for the next 30 usages). I don’t believe that typical brush and roller painting would expose you to high levels of the chemical in a respiratory sense (though spray painting regularly would because it creates small particles that get suspended in the air, I think). However, given the occupational exposure limits, it’s very important when painting, not to get the stuff on your skin (my interpretation).
Under “appropriate engineering controls” in the same section, they also note “If applicable, use process enclosures, local exhaust ventilation, or other engineering controls to maintain airborne levels below recommended exposure limits.” What this means is that painting, from the company’s perspective, should be done with a similarly serious level of ventilation that, say, asbestos removal might require (not an expert, not an expert statement, just opinion).
Under “individual protection measures,” they note “use of an impervious apron is recommended,” as well as “Use a positive-pressure air-supplied respirator if there is any potential for an uncontrolled release, exposure levels are not known, or any other circumstances where air-purifying respirators may not provide adequate protection.” I’m not sure about spray painting, but sanding at any point during the project may throw some amount of toxic material into the air. Are n95 masks up to that challenge? Likely no. Are p100s? Also, likely not. It will depend on the size of the particulate coming through the mask (if it’s smaller than the p100 or n95 filter, it’ll bleed through). It’s better not to create the breathing hazard in the first place.
Physical and Chemical Properties
One notable point is “ VOC - 21 g/l (including water) (Material).” This is the volatile organic compounds that you hear about being marketed on paint. Nothing really interesting here besides pointing out the amount.
Notable moments are “Inhalation of titanium dioxide dust may cause cancer, however due to the physical form of the product, inhalation of dust is not likely,” “Titanium dioxide (CAS 13463-67-7) 2B Possibly carcinogenic to humans.” So, they note that the physical state of the product as a liquid won’t cause dust inhalation. That’s right. As a liquid, you’re safe to apply it. However, sanding is not a particularly safe activity. Skin contact, while not reviewed as a cancer exposure risk here, is strongly recommended as a no-no.
Should we not use Behr paint? That’s probably not the right conclusion to draw here. What is important when painting is to adjust the process to accommodate risks. First, don’t let paint get on your skin; learn how to paint to minimize drips in all situations. If you get it on your skin or in your eyes, wash off quickly and thoroughly. Second, avoid sanding; however, if you absolutely must sand a surface, wear a p100 respirator, or if you have money to buy one, an air-supply respirator setup (though these can run into the thousands of dollars). Clean up the dust after sanding with a vacuum cleaner or wet rag. Third, increase ventilation whenever possible by opening windows, or if you can, creating the sort of environment where exposure levels are always minimized (i.e. as one would with asbestos abatement). Lastly, it’s probably not a bad idea to diversify your workload. Don’t only paint. Painting is probably the most toxic work you can be doing, so try to mix up paint jobs with other kinds of work, so that you aren’t constantly exposing yourself to toxins. Read part 3 reviewing Glidden paint here, and Part 4, reviewing ECOS paint here.