Tips for painting your home safely

June 17, 2012 

When we cover our walls with color, we might choose warm earthy tones, cheerful bright colors, or sweet pastels. When making these paint choices, it’s easy to forget that paint contains chemicals that can be harmful if handled improperly.

Today’s paints are safer than those in the past, when they contained lead and mercury. But many older homes – those built before 1989 – may still have these paints on their walls. During sanding and renovation, dust can spread throughout the house, creating an ongoing hazard, especially for children.

If you live in an older home, follow lead-safe practices or consult with a professional lead abatement contractor before proceeding. Visit the EPA website for more information: oppt/lead.

There are some simple steps to painting that can make the process healthier for you and your family. First, choose safer paints. Most paints contain a group of chemicals called volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that are harmful when inhaled, particularly for pregnant women, children, people with respiratory conditions (such as asthma or COPD) and people with high rates of exposure such as commercial painters. By using water-based (or latex) paint instead of oil-based (or alkyd) paint, you reduce exposure to these chemicals. Water-based paints are now available as low-VOC or zero-VOC paints, and most paint retailers carry these more healthful options.

While painting, follow all instructions on the paint label, including using protective equipment such as respirators or gloves. Remember, an ordinary dust mask does not protect you from volatile organic compounds or lead.

Keep the paint project area well ventilated for 2-3 days after painting. Keep windows open as much as possible and use an exhaust fan to draw fumes out of the home. Pregnant women, kids and pets should stay away from the paint project area. Keep work clothes and shoes in the work area. Seal your workspace with tape and tarps to keep fumes and dust out of the rest of the house.

To protect the environment and your wallet, buy only as much paint as you will need for the project. Most paint retailers have project calculators on their websites or their staff can assist you with this. When your paint project is done, keep a well-sealed, clearly-labeled container of leftover paint (for future touch-ups) securely stored and out of reach of children. Donate useable unneeded paint to interested community groups. You can find these groups via or other sites.

To dispose of oil-based paints, take them to HazoHouse at 2418 Hogum Bay Road N.E., off Interstate-5 Exit 111 in the Hawks Prairie area of Lacey. To dispose of a partial can of latex paint, dry it out first, using sawdust, shredded paper, grass clippings or commercially available paint solidifier. Once the paint is completely solidified, the open can with its contents may be thrown out in the regular trash.

With proper care, you can enjoy both a beautiful and healthful home. For more information about safe painting, go to paint.html.

Dr. Diana T. Yu is the Health Officer for Thurston and Mason counties. Reach her at 360-867-2501 or

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