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Five steps for safer use of solvent-based paints

When it comes to deciding between using solvent-based or water-based paints for a given job, we all know the basic pros and cons: water-based paints will typically smell less offensive, be easier to clean up, and present less risk to health and the environment; solvent-based paints, meanwhile, generally offer better flow-out and a more professional finish, but can present a certain degree of risk to health and the environment if not used with due care.

If you’ve made the decision to work with solvent-based paints (typically any product where the tin or label advises using specialist cleaning agents for brushes and rollers, as opposed to just soap and water), here are five things to be aware of that will help you use them safely and successfully:

1. Fumes

Be aware that the dizziness and nausea we can experience when using paints with a high chemical content is often a twofold issue.

Firstly, there’s the actual chemical content of the fumes themselves, which typically work their way into the bloodstream via the lungs, and can eventually start to destroy brain cells and damage the liver or nervous system in high enough concentrations. (Certain products can also be absorbed into the bloodstream through direct contact with the skin, eyes or mucous membranes, so make sure you know the precise properties of and appropriate safety measures for the paints being applied before starting a job.)

Protective masks and other mechanical filtering devices such as paint filters, goggles or rubber gloves are therefore a good idea when working with solvent-based products. Always remember that it’s particularly important to keep small children, pregnant women and anyone with respiratory problems completely away from the area until well after any solvent-based products have fully dried and aired out.

Secondly, and particularly in smaller spaces, longer jobs can lead to a lack of sufficient oxygen in the work area as the build-up of paint fumes ‘pushes out’ the lighter, more breathable gasses. This will bring on a feeling of light-headedness quite rapidly, and if left unchecked could lead to blackouts causing serious injury, or even death by asphyxiation. For this reason, it’s vitally important to consider quality of airflow both into and out of the work area, and to minimise the amount of paint being used as far as possible.

2. Fire

Be especially vigilant in looking out for potential fire hazards when painting with solvent-based products and thinners, especially if you’re spraying. Fumes, gasses and aerosolised products can quickly build up to the point where any naked flame in the vicinity could well ignite the air around you, and this risk is increase many times over when microscopic particles of solvent-based paint (or indeed thinners or cleaning agents) become airborne through pressured spraying over a wide area.

Any potential ignition source under these conditions can easily result in a fireball – and it’s not just cigarettes, candles or torches that need to be kept at a very safe distance. Electrical circuits should also be disconnected wherever possible if they’re not explosion-proof. Avoid the use of artificial lighting sources such as lamps and torches, and remove vehicles from the area before painting (especially in and around small garages) to minimise the subsequent risk from engine ignition. It’s even worth taking the time to ground metal objects or equipment around the workspace, in order to avoid sparks from static electricity that can be released through excessive friction from carpets or unsuitable clothing (e.g. corduroy).

3. Surfaces

While it’s obvious that appropriate ventilation of workspaces will be important wherever you’re using a solvent-based paint, many people overlook the fact that fumes and odours can also cling in significant concentrations to soft furnishings, fabrics and any other items of furniture or décor with a porous surface. Suitable protection in these cases isn’t just about preventing drips and splashes.

Along with ensuring there’s sufficient ventilation, airflow and extraction around the job site, taking care to cover any soft furnishings with a non-porous protective layer before starting to paint (or, better yet, removing them from the area altogether) will help fumes and odours to disperse more quickly once the work is finished and the room has been left to air out. Don’t remove these coverings before any residual fumes or odours in the workspace have dissipated fully, which may require up to 48 hours depending on the amount of paint used, environmental conditions and the quality of airflow through the site.

4. Patience

One simple way to minimise the amount of solvent-based paint used is to be patient! Due to its slow-drying properties, far more paint of this type often ends up being applied to a job than is strictly necessary, because insufficient time is often allowed for full drying cycles between coats or before touch-ups. Remember that for jobs demanding a second or third coat, solvent-based paints will require a significantly longer drying-down time between applications: many such products will need 16-24 hours in a reasonably warm and dry environment before further coats should be applied, and in less favourable conditions drying times can be even longer. Taking care to adequately prepare surfaces for painting also can dramatically reduce the need for recoating or amending areas later.

A suitable non-solvent-based cleaning and degreasing agent such as this one from Regal Paints, can be very helpful in giving you a clean and consistent surface to work on, which should increase the uniformity of the finish as you go along – however, if differing properties in specific areas of the work surface leads to apparent ‘patchiness’ when painting, don’t be tempted to try to smooth out any uneven-looking spots while the drying process is midway through. These areas will often settle to a more uniform finish once drying is complete, whereas attempting to make adjustments while various sections of the job are in different states of drying means you’ll likely end up dragging paint or spoiling the finish and having to redo larger sections. Allow all areas to dry fully before assessing the need for any additional coats or retouching in specific spots.

5. Disposal

Again, whenever you’re using solvent-based paints, remember there are two areas of potential impact to be aware of – namely the health of you and others in the vicinity, and the wider environment. Your responsibility for safe use of solvent-based products does not end with the final paint stroke; it’s also very important to pay close attention to the issue of proper disposal and clean-up before downing tools for the day.

Take care to wash brushes, rollers and clothing used for applying solvent-based products with a suitable solution (a specialist brush cleaner is far more waste-efficient than white spirit and results in fewer emissions). Above all, ensure that all leftover paints and cleaning products are then disposed of appropriately.

Always be mindful that it’s illegal to pour paints, chemical cleaning agents and other hazardous solutions into drainage systems or watercourses, due to the significant threat it can pose to wildlife and its potential to contaminate even treated drinking water further along the supply chain. If you’re unable to make use of any nearby non-profit community recycling schemes such as Community RePaint, your local authority will be able to advise you on lawful arrangements for safe disposal or scheduled pickup of hazardous chemical products in the area.

 

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