As we race into December after a whirlwind 2017, we are given an opportunity to look back on the past year and the different causes each month can represent. Fall encompasses a remarkable focus on respiratory health, with October serving as Healthy Lung Month and November as Lung Cancer Awareness Month. With tremendous strides made in the paint and coating industry, these lung ailments that these months focus on are now much less of a threat. However, in past industry practice, the inclusion of harmful components put workers’ health at risk. Heavy metals, asbestos, chromium and other volatile organic compound additives compromised air quality - both indoor and outdoor - and contributed to occupational hazard.
A Brief History
Paint has existed since the dawn of human existence, found in cave paintings, through the Renaissance and onward to everyday current applications. Simply put, paint is an emulsion of color, applied using a liquid carrier. As the Industrial Revolution became manifest in the 19th Century, paint’s commercial invaluability became apparent. The paint and coating industry became a mainstay in building and manufacturing, but its components began to show their hazardous nature in time. The inclusion of dangerous additives like asbestos, chromium and ingredients that emitted toxic fumes proved very dangerous for respiratory health during the application process. However, advances in the modern industry, particularly in paint composition and the advent of powder coating, have greatly reduced these hazards; we will take a look at several of these former dangers.
A Fireproof Solution
Asbestos was used in many products through the 1970s - one of which was paint and coatings. The material was utilized due to its efficiency in fire resistance. However, contemporary studies have shown that there is no safe amount of exposure to asbestos, due to its carcinogenic properties. As the paint ages and chips, especially in the process of removal, liability for asbestos-dust inhalation increases, which can cause severe illness such as mesothelioma. Identifying that you have been exposed to asbestos is extremely crucial to a mesothelioma patients life expectancy. Catching it at its earliest stage has a more promising outlook and better treatment options. Fortunately, paint made with asbestos has all but ceased production, and is very rare to find in the United States.
Very Heavy Metal
According to OSHA, the majority of steel structure paint produced prior to 1980 included heavy metals as additives - all of which are now known-carcinogens. The most notorious toxin included in paint was hexavalent chromium, which was added as a protective measure against corrosion and for its reflective properties. High levels of toxic chromium dust can be released into the airway during jobs that necessitate abrasion or blasting, putting workers at risk. These compounds of chromium pose serious health risks to workers, most notably lung cancer. The best way to safeguard against hexavalent chromium exposure is to wear properly rated respirators while doing abrasion.
Volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, have historically been a tremendous issue in paint and coating. VOCs can refer to any sort of vapor or gas emitted from an organic chemical. These vapors are released into the atmosphere, where they can contribute to airway irritation, labored breathing and headaches in the short-term. Long-term VOC exposure can cause serious health issues, include damage to the kidneys, liver and respiratory system. However, as legislation began to crackdown on toxic emissions from the paint and coating industry, research began to create less-harmful paints and coatings. By the end of the 20th Century, low-VOC and VOC-free paints became readily available.
Innovation in the Industry
Today, environmental and health-conscious paint manufacturing, as well as the advent of powder coating, has greatly reduced the threat of respiratory illness. The process of powder coating - particularly due to the lack of a liquid carrier agent - has effectively limited environmental pollutants and the incidence of human toxins. However, the risk of old carcinogens becoming present in the atmosphere is very real, so proper safety practices in the workplace is imperative. As the industry continues to innovate, positive progression continues to lead the way.