If you’re one of the many homeowners considering using this summer to repaint your house or apartment, you might have been concerned to hear that, according to a just-published study in the journal Occupational & Environmental Medicine, women exposed to common paint chemicals at work are more likely to have a child with autism spectrum disorder. Further, the greater the exposure, the greater the autism risk, the study found. These risks remained even after the researchers adjusted their data to account for other potential autism factors, such as a woman’s smoking history, alcohol habits, and age at the time her child was born.
The new study isn’t proof that paint and related chemical exposures cause autism, and should be “interpreted with caution,” the authors write. But the findings are in line with previous studies that found an association between paint chemicals and autism. And there’s a growing body of evidence linking the many chemicals found in paint and its fumes to a number of health issues.
Benzene, for example, is an established carcinogen that turns up in some paints, particularly oil-based paints, as well as in art and crafts supplies like glue and dry-erase markers, vehicle exhaust, and pesticides. As with other carcinogens, it’s likely people mostly have to worry about long-term or very high amounts of benzene exposure. But spending time in a poorly ventilated and newly painted room could expose people to elevated benzene levels, the ACS states.
Benzene is one of a class of chemicals known as volatile organic compounds, or VOCs. People who work in labs—including medical or pharmaceutical research facilities—or who work with paints, in the chemical industry, or as beauticians and cosmetologists are among those who are more likely to be exposed to these chemicals, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Breathing in high levels of VOCs can cause a number of short-term health problems, from headaches and dizziness to a runny nose and itchy eyes. Some VOCs may also cause nervous system and organ damage, according to the American Lung Association. Maternal exposure to some VOCs found in paint may raise the risk for low birth weight, which in turn is associated with an increased risk for delayed development or learning disabilities.
Experts are still figuring out just how these chemicals harm the human body. But research has found that some of them can be absorbed into the blood through contact with the skin or through inhalation, and that they can accumulate in the brain or organs of those who are exposed. The liver also breaks down some of these chemicals into byproducts that can bind to and potentially interfere with a cell’s genetic material.
The take-home message from all this research is that paint is potentially toxic—especially for “vulnerable” groups such as pregnant women, young children and the elderly. VOC levels are usually much higher indoors than out, especially if those indoor areas are not well ventilated. And wet or drying paint—particularly oil-based paints—tend to emit a lot of VOCs, says Clifford Weisel, a professor at the Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences Institute of Rutgers University.
Erin McCanlies, co-author of the recent autism study and an epidemiologist at the CDC’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, says water-based low- or zero-VOC paints—which are now easy to find—may be safer than older generations of paints. “However, paints may contain other chemicals such as binders, corrosion inhibitors and preservatives that may contribute to their toxicological properties,” she says. And research has found that even zero-VOC paints still emit chemical gases.
So, even if you’re using these, Weisel says it’s a good idea to open windows and doors and turn on a fan. This can increase ventilation and carry away any potentially harmful fumes. Once paint has fully dried—something that happens more quickly in warm, dry conditions—the risk of inhaling harmful emissions is greatly reduced. “Airing a room out for a couple days is usually sufficient,” Weisel says.
The EPA also warns against storing paint in your home. Paint cans may release chemicals gases or fumes even if they’re closed, and so a basement or closet full of old paint cans is bad news. “If you’re following all these precautions, exposure should not be reaching a level that would cause a lot of concern,” Weisel says.
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