Is Turpentine Healthy for the Lungs?

Turpentine is a solvent made from the wood or gum of pine trees. Paints, resins, inks and many other products contain turpentine, and it also is used to make camphor and menthol. Turpentine is a toxic substance that is not healthy for the lungs. Breathing in turpentine fumes can cause both short-term and long-term health problems.

An artist uses turpentine to clean her brushes. (Image: robertprzybysz/iStock/Getty Images)

Short-Term Effects

Breathing in turpentine fumes can irritate the lungs, nose and throat, leading to coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath, according to a Hazardous Substances Fact Sheet from the New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services. Other symptoms of breathing in turpentine may include headache, dizziness and nausea. High-level exposure to turpentine can lead to pulmonary edema, a potentially fatal buildup of fluid in the lungs that causes severe shortness of breath.

Long-Term Effects

Turpentine irritates the lungs, and long-term exposure can lead to a chronic form of bronchitis, according to the New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services' Hazardous Substances Fact Sheet. The U.S. Occupational Safety & Health Administration says that studies have shown that workers exposed regularly to turpenes, one of the main ingredients in turpentine, for more than five years have an increased risk of lung cancer.

Limits

Both OSHA and The American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists have set 100 parts per million, or ppm, of air as the acceptable limit for respiratory turpentine exposure. The standard is based on an average exposure over an eight-hour work day. One hundred ppm equates to 560 milligrams per cubic meter of air.

Prevention

People who work with turpentine can take a number of precautions to limit respiratory exposure to the substance. Proper ventilation is necessary to ensure levels don't exceed OSHA air quality standards. This may include a special ventilation system or ventilation fan. OSHA also recommends workers wear respirators when they are working in areas where turpentine concentrations exceed recommended air quality standards. Workers should also wear protective clothing, gloves and safety goggles when working with turpentine.

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