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Toxins and VOCs


Sample of chemicals used in conventional paints and coatings


There are hundreds of potentially dangerous chemicals in conventional paint, many of them still to be tested.  Those already known to be carcinogenic have been limited to a degree; however, extremely harmful toxins such as diisocyanate (TDI), formaldehyde and Methyl ethyl ketone are among those most commonly found in paints and coatings.



TDI and other isocyanates commonly cause irritation to the mucous membranes of the eyes, gastrointestinal tract and respiratory tract.  Respiratory irritation can progress to the point of chemical bronchitis with severe asthma resulting in death, as some cases have been reported. Direct skin contact with TDI can also cause marked inflammation.


Data from recent studies of animals show that cancer is associated with exposure to commercial-grade TDI. The responses of both rats and mice treated with TDI meet the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) criteria for classifying a substance as a potential occupational carcinogen. Similar results of carcinogenic effects were found during investigations by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) and the World Health Organization (WHO). IARC concluded that the data was sufficient to show TDI as a cause of cancer in animals and WHO concluded that TDI should be treated as a potential human carcinogen.

In some cases the severity of a person’s reaction to this particular toxin cannot even be mitigated with appropriate use of protective equipment.  In the case of a 37-year-old male, self-employed car painter who died enroute to the hospital, the protective mask he wore while working with the paints as well as the medication he took to treat his symptoms were still not enough to fight the impending asthma attack brought on by the isocyanate particles. 



Then, there is formaldehyde.  Although safe to use on the recently deceased, formaldehyde is know to affect the health of adults and children in a variety of ways. Several studies have found links between the use of paint and childhood leukemia. A University of California study found a significant association between rooms painted and an increase in leukemia – 65 percent. Furthermore, mothers who used paint during pregnancy were three-times as likely to have a child with acute lymphobalstic leukemia. There have been several other studies that have uncovered links and associations between formaldehyde and cancers among adults. Studies of paint workers have revealed that they are at a higher risk for cancer of the bladder, lungs, pancreas, liver, and stomach because of their exposure to formaldehyde and other toxic chemicals in paint.

The formaldehyde in paints has also been linked to skin and eye irritations, bronchitis and can cause problems in the central nervous system. The U.S. National Cancer Instituted found in a 2009 study that the longer funeral workers spent embalming bodies with formaldehyde the more likely they were to to develop certain types of cancer – particularly those who were involved in embalming for more than 20 years. Formaldehyde can also trigger asthma – a condition which has increased nearly 600% since 1980.



Methyl ethyl ketone (MEK) also known as Butanone is a widely used industrial solvent and often found in finishes and lacquers as a biocide to prevent mold.  Exposure to this toxin can occur through the respiratory system or the dermatitis (uncovered skin) as it enters the body through a person’s mucus membrane.  Animal testing has shown MEK to cause neurological, liver, kidney and respiratory problems as well as developmental effects.  A laboratory in Switzerland published their findings in the journal of Fundamental and Applied Toxicology after finding that pregnant mice exposed to MEK vapors for 7 hr/day during gestation had increases of cleft palate, fused ribs, missing vertebrae, and syndactyly in their babies.  These findings are further confirmed by a report filed by the University Medical Center Utrecht, Netherlands in which a child born to healthy parents was born with encephalocele and cleft palate after the mother had been exposed to high levels of Methyl ethyl ketone.

MEK is also listed as a hazardous material by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and is considered a reproductive toxin by the US Department of Energy’s Office of Sciences.  The National Library of Medicine’s Hazardus Substances Database describes MEK as affecting psychomotor performance and having adverse effects on memory functions after long-term occupational exposure.  In this case, painters rank among the most at risk professions to experience side effects and in doing so could be placing their families at risk as well.