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Maintaining Indoor Air Quality While Painting

There are many factors to consider before beginning a painting project. Special care should be taken when sanding a surface to prepare for painting due to the dust released into the air. The dust may contain lead particles, if the surface contains lead-based paint. Exposure to excessive levels of lead could affect a child's mental growth, and interfere with nervous system development, which could cause learning disabilities and impaired hearing. In adults, lead can increase blood pressure.

Unless a lead-based paint inspection shows it doesn't, you should treat paint in homes built before 1978 as if it contained lead. See further information on lead if this applies to your home.

Most paints give off volatile organic compounds (VOCs)- chemicals that evaporate in the air--that could lead to IAQ problems. The ability of these chemicals to cause health effects varies greatly. As with any chemical, the likelihood of a reaction and the extent and type of health effect will depend on many factors. These factors include the amount of chemical in the indoor air, the length of time a person is exposed to the chemical, and a person's age, pre-existing medical conditions, and individual susceptibility. Eye and throat or lung irritation, headaches, dizziness, and vision problems are among the immediate symptoms that some people have experienced soon after exposure to some chemicals.

In professional painters who are exposed to high levels of paint vapors for long periods of time, some chemicals in paints have damaged the nervous system, liver, and kidneys. Some chemicals cause cancer or reproductive and developmental effects in laboratory animals. Because of these concerns, susceptible people, such as young children and individuals with breathing problems, should avoid paint vapors. To avoid any health risks for themselves and their unborn babies, pregnant women should avoid undertaking painting projects and should limit their time in freshly painted rooms, especially when oil-based paints are being used.


  1. Check that the painted surface is lead-free (or assume that any existing paint contains lead) before preparing a surface for repainting.
  • Determine that the existing surface is lead-free OR assume surface contains lead-based paint
  • If paint is lead-based, use appropriate preparation and painting techniques
  1. Select an appropriate paint.
  • Many water-based paints (even interior paints) have, until recently, used mercury as a fungicide. Any paint that contains mercury should not be used indoors. Evaluate any existing stock of paint and properly dispose of paints containing lead or mercury.
  • With painting indoors, make sure you select paints that are for indoor use. Do not use exterior paints indoors
  • Evaluate new paint before you purchase it. There are two categories of interior paints, water-based and oil-based. Water-based paints are referred to as "latex" paints. The oil-based paints are referred to as "alkyd" paints. In general, water-based paints will emit fewer chemicals and lower levels of chemical vapors. Short-term exposure to solvents from alkyd paints can be significantly higher than from latex paints. Express your IAQ concerns to paint suppliers and use their technical personnel as a resource. Not all paint suppliers have information on pollutant emissions; consult other source (e.g., manufacturers) if your paint supplier cannot provide adequate information.
  1. Always read and follow all the instructions and safety precautions on the label
  • Do not assume you already know how to use the product. The hazards may be different from on product to another. Some ingredients in individual products may also change over time. The label tells you what action you should take to reduce hazards and the first aid measures to use if there is a problem.
  1. During interior painting, minimize exposing people to odors and contaminants.
  • Try to schedule interior painting when the home is unoccupied, e.g., when people are at work or school, or on vacation. Under normal temperature and humidity, most emissions occur during drying, in the first few days after painting. You can also try to schedule painting for dry periods in the fall or spring, when windows are more easily left open for ventilation.
  • Use exhaust fans to remove paint fumes from the building. Exhaust fans (such as a box fan, blowing from the room to the outdoors) should be used in the area being painted to remove fumes. Supply fans can be used in adjacent areas to keep fumes out. Operate fans and provide as much ventilation as possible continuously (24 hours/day, 7 days/week) from the beginning of the painting work until 2 or 3 days after painting has been completed.
  • Block any heating or air-conditioning return openings--opening which send air back to the furnace or air-conditioner--in the rooms you are painting (if necessary turn off the regular home heating, cooling, or ventilation systems) to prevent circulating air from the work area to other areas of the home. If supply air is necessary for heating/cooling, make sure to provide adequate exhaust ventilation to avoid pressurizing the room and driving pollutants to other parts of the house. Do not block a cold air return with the furnace or air-conditioner running if it is the only return in the house.
  1. Use Appropriate Storage and Disposal Practices for Paints, Solvents, and Clean-up Materials.
  • Latex paint usually cleans up with soap and water. For alkyd paints, you will need to purchase specific products as listed on the label.
  • Never use gasoline to clean paint brushes. Gasoline is extremely flammable. Read the label to find out if the paint cleaner is flammable. All flammable products should be used away from ignition sources such as water heaters, furnaces, electric motors, fans, etc.
  1. Use Appropriate Storage and Disposal Practices for Paints, Solvents, and Clean-up Materials.
  • Seal containers carefully after use.
  • Buy only as much paint as you need to finish the job to avoid having to store or dispose of unused paint.
  • When possible, keep paint containers in storage areas equipped with exhaust ventilation, but not near heating, ventilation, or air-conditioning equipment rooms.
  • Use an appropriate waste disposal method to dispose of any paints containing lead or mercury.
  1. Use and handle paint strippers properly.
  • Paint strippers contain chemicals that loosen paint from surfaces. These chemicals can harm you if not used properly. Some paint stripping chemicals can irritate the skin and eyes, or cause headaches, drowsiness, nausea, dizziness, or loss of coordination. Some may cause cancer, reproductive problems, or damage of the liver, kidney, or brain. Others catch fire easily. Proper handling and use of paint strippers will reduce your exposure to these chemicals and lessen your health risk. From more information see What You Should Know About Using Paint Strippers