The Health Effects of Oil Based Paint

Although lead was banned from oil-based paint in 1978, today's oil-based paints may still contain some heavy metals in the pigments. Oil-based paint fumes contain potentially poisonous hydrocarbons and high levels of volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, which perform numerous function in paint and evaporate as it dries. The most significant health effects of oil-based paint are due to polluted air from VOCs, inhalation and poisoning.

Oil paints can contain heavy metals. (Image: ROMAOSLO/iStock/GettyImages)

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Oil-based paint may cause allergic reactions, gastrointestinal symptoms, difficulty breathing, rapid heartbeat and other adverse reactions to its high levels of chemicals.

Is Oil-Based Paint Toxic?

The dangers of oil-based paint range from cancer and poisoning to allergic reactions. Oil-based paint poisoning, for example, may occur when large amounts of paint getting into your stomach or lungs, as MedlinePlus points out. Paint also can enter your system through your skin or eyes.

The primary risk is from the hydrocarbons in the paint, and symptoms include respiratory difficulty or coughing, confusion, rapid heartbeat, skin irritation and blistering and irritated or watering eyes and sinuses. Unconsciousness, dizziness, confusion and even coma may occur too. Abdominal pain, diarrhea, vomiting and other gastrointestinal symptoms are common following the exposure to oil-based paint.

If you've been exposed to oil-based paint fumes, reach out to a healthcare provider immediately. This could be a medical emergency. Be prepared to provide as much detail as possible about the affected person, as well as the exact material ingested or inhaled. Treatment will depend on your symptoms.

Oil-Based Paint and Cancer

The Environmental Protection Agency states that some VOCs are known to cause cancer in both animals and humans, while others have been insufficiently studied for their risk factors. Extent and length of duration probably influence the risk level.

VOCs are not only found in oil-based paint but in a wide range of common household products, such as detergents, pesticides, wood preservatives and air fresheners. Household cleaners and disinfectants may contain these compounds too. Today's water-based paints typically have very low or even zero VOCs compared to oil-based paint.

These compounds are measured in grams per liter, according to Consumer Reports. A growing number of manufacturers are now producing paint with less than 50 grams of VOC per liter. The maximum limit is 380 grams per liter for most finishes and 250 grams per liter for flat finishes. The VOC level should be listed on the paint can label.

Organ Damage and Allergic Reactions

The EPA cautions that exposure to oil-based paint may also cause organ and central nervous system damage, although it is unclear which compounds are most toxic and what levels are considered harmful. Pregnant and nursing women should avoid using or inhaling oil-based paint.

Some people may be particularly sensitive to oil-based paint and will feel dizzy or nauseated, have trouble breathing, develop a rash or have some other adverse reaction with very little exposure. Oil-based paint fumes side effects vary from one individual to another and range from mild to severe.

To stay safe, always work in a very well-ventilated area, opening windows and using fans to vent the room when working inside. Wear a protective mask while using oil-based paint, especially when spraying it. If you have a troubling reaction to the paint, discontinue its use and check with your medical provider.

Don't use oil-based paint if you or anyone in your home has allergies or suspected allergies to mold. Oil-based paint provides a nutritious environment for mold and mildew because mildew will feed on the oils in the paint.

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