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Avoiding Paint Fumes Part II - Specialty Paint

The paint fumes in specialty paint are a dangerous cocktail of solvents and petroleum based chemicals. These ingredients are linked to cancer and reproductive problems.

The paint fumes in specialty paint are a dangerous cocktail of solvents and petroleum based chemicals. These ingredients are linked to cancer and reproductive problems. 

Specialty paints include paints for metal and plastic (like Rustoleum), lacquer paints, and high heat and chalkboard paints. Using these products in spray form is exceptionally dangerous to your health.

In Part I of Avoiding Paint Fumes I cover general info on paint, the chemicals in fumes, the VOC levels in paint and why low and zero VOC paint does not mean nontoxic. In Part II I cover the scary chemicals and high VOC levels in specialty paints and some less toxic options.

Specialty Paints

Specialty paints are used to keep metal from rusting, to protect wood stoves and outdoor grills, to create a chalkboard surface anywhere, cover concrete and refresh outdoor furniture. You can even spruce up old flower pots.

There are a lot of cool things you can do with specialty paint. Unfortunately, the paint fumes from these paints, because they are solvent based, are a toxic cocktail of carcinogens and endocrine disrupting chemicals.

In fact, many specialty paints are labeled as posing both "an Acute and Chronic Health Hazard".

The Chemicals In Specialty Paint Fumes

As you look over the list below of the toxic chemicals in specialty paints, keep in mind that most of them are released into the air as paint fumes. In other words, these chemicals are released as VOCs.

In fact, the VOC levels in specialty paint are anywhere from over 200 grams / liter to a whopping 600+ gms/L.

Plus, just like interior latex paint, a can of specialty paint may contain a large percentage (can be as high as 69%) of ingredient(s) of unknown acute toxicity. This means they have not been tested to determine whether they can make you sick. 

So, you can assume that using specialty paints exposes you to paint fumes containing the following toxic chemicals plus numerous chemicals that may be toxic.


Reproductive Toxins

Carbon Black
Methyl Isobutyl Ketone
Propylene Oxide
Butyl Benzyl Phthalate

N-Methyl 2-Pyrrolidone
Butyl Benzyl Phthalate

Why My Cartoon Is No Joke

You might be thinking that my cartoon at the beginning of this post is a bit over the top. But if you read the Material Data Safety Sheet (MDSS) that's available with every kind of paint, you'll find that my drawing is no exaggeration.

  • The health warning on specialty paints states:

"Do not breathe dust/fume/gas/mist/vapors/spray / Wear protective gloves/protective clothing/eye protection/face protection."

  • To safely use these paints you’re supposed to:

"Use impervious gloves to prevent skin contact and absorption of this material through the skin. Nitrile or Neoprene gloves may afford adequate skin protection. Wear safety eyewear designed to protect against splash of liquids. Protection provided by air purifying respirators is limited. Use a positive pressure air supplied respirator."

Show of hands. How many of you follow these safety guidelines when you use specialty paints?

Spray Paints Are The Most Toxic Specialty Paints

The absolute worst type of specialty paint, including those used on metal and vinyl, for high heat applications and chalkboard paint, are found in a spray can. 

The Health Hazard Warnings listed in the MDSS for spray paint usually says this:

"Suspected of causing cancer, Causes serious eye and skin irritation, Suspected of damaging fertility or the unborn child and May cause damage to organs through prolonged or repeated exposure."  Plus, it is an extremely flammable aerosol.

And because you spray them into the air as a mist, you increase your exposure to the dangerous chemicals in these paints.

Four Reasons Why Spray Paints Are So Toxic

1. They release a lot of VOCs. The average VOC level in spray paint is over 500 gms/liter. I think it's because the paint is thinner, which means more solvents are used. 

2. They have the most toxic paint fumes because of the amount and kind of chemicals used. Besides the extra solvents, a liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), like butane, is needed to get the paint out of the can.

  • Inhalation of LPG can cause agitation, nausea, vomiting, flushing, headache and lack of balance · exposure to high concentrations may cause asphyxiation, fitting, coma, heart problems and death 
  • 1,3 butadiene, a chemical that causes cancer, may be found in LPG as an impurity from its production. 

3. Spraying paint increases your exposure to toxins. Your basically spraying finely atomized paint, binder, pigment, and solvents into your air.

  • Sprayed chemicals linger in your home's air the longest.
  • It's easier to inhale the toxins into your airways because of the turbulent air flow created by sprayers.
  • The sprayed paint chemicals can attach to surfaces in your home. Things like carpet, wallpaper, drywall and curtains can absorb and release these chemicals long after you're done cleaning.
  • Paints contain minerals like crystalline silica, titanium dioxide, and talc, which are dangerous when inhaled, but considered safe in liquid form. However, in spray paint, the mist from the nozzle exposes you to these carcinogens. 

Warning on High Heat Spray Paint for a Single Exposure

Causes damage to organs . Classified Category 1. Substances that produced significant toxicity in humans and evidence to produce significant toxicity with single exposure. Cell death, adverse change in biochemistry, haematology or urinalysis parameters, Central or peripheral nervous system and effects senses. multifocal or diffuse necrosis, fibrosis or granuloma formation in organs.

Less Toxic Options For Specialty Paints

I couldn't find a less toxic option for high heat paint or for any type of spray paint. But, you can still create a chalkboard surface in your home, restore metal furniture and paint your cabinets with less toxic options.

Here is a list of healthier options for most specialty paints that come in a can.

Rust Inhibitor for Metal

AFM SafeCoat, MetalCoat Metal Primer   
A low-VOC primer for most metals that inhibits rust and is made without solvents or hazardous heavy metals. Contains minerals, acrylics and propylene glycol.


SafeCoat Acrylacq
An indoor multi-purpose lacquer substitute that is very low VOC. It also seals in VOC's that outgass from furniture and walls. Found to stop the outgassing of formaldehyde by 97.7%.

Masonry Paint

AFM Safecoat Concrete Floor Paint
A very low VOC, water-based acrylic paint for  concrete, magnesite, walkways, breezeways and patios.

Chalkboard Paint

Colorhouse Chalkboard Paint
All Colorhouse paints are zero VOC and are tinted with zero VOC colorants.

Multisurface Refinishing Paint

Beyond Paint Multisurface Paint
Beyond Paint offers a less toxic multisurface all-in-one bonder/primer/finisher for furniture and cabinets. But, be aware that it does contain ammonia and uses nanotechnology. Click here for the MDSS.

For More Options

Check out the website for green certified options.

Tips For Safer Painting

  • Always Read The Material Data Safety Sheet and Follow The Safety Guidelines
  • Don't Spray - Always Brush or Roll On
  • Ventilate the Area You're Painting Even With Less Toxic Paints.
  • Always Choose the Least Toxic Options When Painting Any Surface
  • Always Wear a Dust Mask When Sanding Any Painted Surface.

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