By Ronald Fuchs,
Angela Babin, and
Monona Rossol, M.S., M.F.A.
Liquid paint and varnish removers are among the most toxic products
used in homes and workshops.
The active ingredients in most common paint removers are organic solvents which may damage the skin, eyes, respiratory tract, nervous system, and internal organs. Special precautions must be taken in their use, especially if there are children present who might come in contact with either the material or its vapors. Paint stripper formulations in paste form are less hazardous than the liquid forms because they only contain around 50% solvents rather than 100% as found in the liquid forms.
Common Paint Remover Solvents and Their Hazards:
During paint removal, the average person is exposed to the hazards of paint strippers for two to three hours at a time, making safety precautions crucial. The elderly or people in poor health should not use paint removers. Consult your physician if you suffer from heart trouble or a breathing ailment which can be aggravated by toxic vapors. Smokers should never smoke around paint removers or their vapors because of the fire hazards. Pregnant women should avoid exposure to all toxic solvents which can harm the mother and cause fetal damage. The risks do not vanish after birth, for toxic solvents have been found in breast milk. Children and pets should not be allowed in or near areas where paint removers are being used.
cfm= dilution volume/per pint x # pints x K/time in minutes = 63,400 x 1 x 10/60 minutes = 10,567 cfm A window exhaust fan removing contaminated air at 10,567 cubic feet per minute would be impractical. Projects should be done in sections and stages to reduce the ventilation requirements. Often, paint stripper formulations are combinations of different solvents. For combination calculations, one can assume an additive effect for similar chemicals.
Other Methods of Removing Paint
Portable torches are often used to burn
and soften old paint making it easy to scrape away. This method can
char and damage wood, making this a technique unsuitable for fine work.
The torch is a fire hazard, so have a fire extinguisher handy.
Inhalation of fumes and vapors from the partially burned paint is a
severe hazard in this process, especially if the old paint contains
lead. In general, using a torch to remove paint is not recommended.
Heat guns or hot air guns, resembling heavy hand-held hair dryers, can be used to soften and raise paint, but heat won't work at all on many varnishes. These guns can be used for fine work if the softened paint is raised carefully with a spatula or knife and the residual paint left on the object is cleaned with steel wool dipped in alcohol or (if necessary) a small amount of paint remover.
Heat guns can operate on 14 amps of current and can generate very high temperatures; care should be taken to avoid burns. Some of the heat guns may reach high enough temperatures to vaporize lead and cadmium. Some actual cases of lead poisoning have resulted from use of heat guns to remove lead-containing paint. Therefore, we would not advise using heat guns with paints containing lead, cadmium or other volatile, toxic chemicals. For information on removing lead-based paint see CSA data sheet on lead-based paint removal.
Buie SE et al: "Diffuse Pulmonary Injury following Paint Remover Exposure." Am Jour of Med 81: 702-704 (October 1986).
Clark N et al: Ventilation. Nick Lyons Books, New York (1985).
"Glove Selection". Center for SAfety in the Arts (1988). National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health: Current Intelligence Bulletin 46--Methylene Chloride. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, (April 18, 1986).
"Respirators". Center for Safety in the Arts (1988).
"Lead-Based Paint Removal".
Art Hazards News 5(6):1,4 (1982).
This article was originally printed for Art Hazard News, © copyright Center for Safety in the Arts 1988. It appears on nontoxicprint courtesy of the Health in the Arts Program, University of Illinois at Chicago, who have curated a collection of these articles from their archive which are still relevant to artists today.