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The EPA describes Volatile Organic Compounds as chemicals that evaporate at room temperature, which are emitted by a wide array of products used in the work place and in the home including solvents such as naphtha, turpentine, xylene and toluene as examples. VOCs also emanate from paint, lacquer, paint strippers, varnish, cleaning supplies, air fresheners, pesticides, building materials and even furnishings.
VOCs are released from these products into the work area or at home both during use and even while stored. That is a silent hazard as according to the EPA, VOCs cause eye, nose and throat irritation, frequent headaches, nausea, and can also damage the liver, kidney and central nervous system.
Author Michael McFadden, Ph.D., writing from the University of Illinois, School of Public Health in Health Hazards of Solvent states in part:
The problem is that in many art, sculpture and mold making studios, solvents are still used without any form of protection. Some studios have dealt with the issue of solvent exposure through the installation of ventilation systems. However, Stanford scientists found that the impact of solvent vapors on human health is one thousand times greater in an indoor environment, as opposed to outdoors. This may explain why illness due to solvent VOC inhalation, despite the widespread adoption of sophisticated ventilation systems in studios and workshop.
Since the 1960s, there has been increasing medical evidence that most petroleum derived solvents are toxic. This has been the basis of various lawsuits brought by afflicted workers, for example in the US railway industry. Over the past twenty years - and with little publicity - there have also been various lawsuits regarding sickness or injury resulting from solvent exposure in the field of painting and decorating, in art schools and in other fields such as road construction and printing.
People who were exposed to harsh solvents twelve or more years ago may still face cognitive side effects, including brain damage, according to the findings of new research.
In a study published in the medical journal, Neurology, researchers found that exposure to solvents had a negative effect on cognitive functions, like memory and thinking. The effects were found much later in the workers' lives; twelve to fifty years after exposure, and did not fade over time.
Numerous solvents that were classed as 'moderately toxic' in older literature on solvent safety are now regarded as 'toxic'. For instance White Spirit / Mineral Spirits or Acetone have been re-evaluated by experts and are now classed as 'toxic' and as potential carcinogens. Glycol ether, often quoted as being a mere irritant and a necessity is also toxic, not only in concentration but also diluted (e.g. In water-based paints and cleaning products).
As a result of these hazards and the enactment of EPA regulations on the requirement to lower VOCs or to eliminate them altogether, the solvent industry has stepped up to the plate and has now formulated a number of excellent solvent substitutions. These either have no VOCs or are so low in VOCs that the EPA classifies them “VOC Exempt.” One such product to consider as a non VOC substitute is a silicone-base, very low odor, solvent called SOSYL, that is completely VOC free. The new solvent is used for thinning 2-part RTV silicone, thinning silicone paint systems for use in airbrushing silicone colorants and used for the solvent enlargement and shrinking process of silicone molds.
In conclusion, the evidence supports a strong recommendation that you use a protective NIOSH mask when handling any VOC solvent for the health reasons we detailed above. As an alternate, search out use the newly developed VOC-free and VOC-exempt solvents, so that you continue your artistry in the best of health.
Above: NIOSH Respirator
Below: Some of the Hazardous Solvents found in Studio