Paints can contain some very dangerous substances which, if we take into account the large areas paint covers in our homes, is an important issue to address regarding our exposure to toxic chemicals. 

Perhaps the most well-known example of these chemicals is lead, whose use in paints has been significantly restricted in several countries due to the overwhelming evidence regarding the health effects of this substance (as well as polychlorobiphenols (PCBs) which also have a bad history of effects on our health and environment).

There is a long list of harmful chemicals that have been used in the production of paint including other heavy metals e.g. mercury and cadmium, as well as compounds such as toluene, xylene or styrene and other dangerous substances e.g. epoxy resin, melanin resins, formaldehyde, aliphatic hydrocarbons, ketones, glycols and fungicides.

The National Institute of Safety and Health at Work (NISHW) in one of their Factsheets warn us about various chemicals which can be emitted from water- and latex-based paints: benzene, toluene, xylene, ethanol, methanol, octane, decane, undecane, glycol ethers, polychlorobiphenol, dibutyl phthalates etc.

Measures have been put in place to try and reduce some of these compounds but the majority of paints may still contain levels of these dangerous chemicals.

One of the most worrying issues regarding paints is the high emission of VOCs due to the large proportion of them found in solvents.

Product labels on paint tins, despite often not indicating sufficiently the chemicals they contain, do at least give a number of warnings that the product may cause us to inhale dangerous chemicals. Some labels, aside from the well-known advice to avoid breathing in too much around the products and making sure the space is well-ventilated, may detail the associated risks for pregnant women.

However, these warnings usually refer to the possible effects of an intense chemical exposure from surfaces that have been recently painted and not to the possible long-term effects of low levels of these chemicals which can stay in the air we breathe for a long time.

Apart from the obvious health issues caused by intensive exposure such as respiratory problems or sensitisation, we should also consider the increased risk of other implications such as cancer or damage to the central nervous system due to prolonged exposure to lower levels of these chemicals.

Paint thinners or turpentine, which is used to clean painting tools and equipment, may also contain dangerous, problematic chemicals.

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