There are basically three categories of paint which pregnant women could be exposed to: latex, oil, and enamel. The degree of toxicity during pregnancy is challenging to predict because there are currently no methods of measuring actual exposure. The likelihood of paint toxicity depends on the chemicals and solvents found in the paint along with the amount of exposure.
What about pregnancy and household paint use?
The most common question related to pregnancy and paint exposure has to do with painting the new baby’s nursery or decorating the house before the baby arrives. Unfortunately, there are no studies that document the effects of household painting on pregnancy and the developing baby.
Currently, the assumption is that household painting involves very low levels of exposure. The recommendation is to avoid exposure to oil-based paints, leads and mercury. You should minimize exposure to latex paints that contain ethylene glycol ethers and biocides. Ideally, you should get someone else to do the job for you.
Lead based paint was commonly used prior to the 1970s, so pregnant women should avoid removing old paint because of the risk of lead exposure. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, exposure to lead paint increases the likelihood of lead poisoning and mental retardation. Scraping and sanding old paint should be completely avoided. This puts higher concentrations of solvents and chemicals into the air to be inhaled. The recommendation is to have someone else do this part of the remodeling and ideally, remove yourself from the location until the project is complete.
If you are just too excited and you must paint the nursery, make sure you follow these guidelines to decrease the likelihood of paint exposure:
- Protect your skin by wearing protective clothing that includes long pants, long-sleeved shirts and gloves
- Be certain that the room and house are well ventilated; open the windows and turn on fans
- Limit the time you spend on the project; take breaks and move into the fresh air frequently
- Keep your food and drinks away from the area so solvents and chemicals will not accidentally be consumed
What about pregnancy and occupational or industrial paint use?
Occupational and industrial paint circumstances (ie… painting cars) warrant concern because of the consistency and level of exposure to paints and solvents. The largest concern is the use of spray paints due to the high quantity of mist created, which can potentially be inhaled. Protective clothing and effective ventilation can help reduce the level of exposure and potential risk to the baby.
What about pregnancy and recreational use?
Recreational use of paints involves sniffing or inhaling paint solvents; this is harmful whether you are pregnant or not. Sniffing and inhaling paints provides high levels of exposure and increases the risk of harm to the baby, including miscarriage or a birth defect.
What if I have been exposed to paint already?
Currently, there are no studies that document harm to the baby during normal and incidental exposure to paint (i.e. painting a room). The only studies that note a potential for miscarriage and malformations has to do with the higher levels of exposure through recreational use (sniffing and inhaling regularly).
If you have been exposed to paint, rest assured that the likelihood of any problems is low. According to the FDA, today’s paints do not contain lead and are probably not dangerous. Let your health care provider know of any paint exposure and together you can discuss the potential risk.
What are the recommendations and precautions?
- Avoiding paints and solvents is the safest course of action
- Talk to your health care provider before beginning a painting project
- Paint exposures during household painting are likely to have less exposure than occupational settings
- Wear protective clothing, masks, and keep the area ventilated
- Avoid latex paints that contain solvents such as ethylene glycol ethers and biocides
- In general, water colors, acrylic, and tempera paints are recommended over oil paints
- Limit duration and frequency of your painting
Compiled using information from the following sources:
Mayo Clinic Guide To A Healthy Pregnancy Harms, Roger W., M.D., et al, Introduction.
Illinois Teratogen Information Service, http://www.fetal-exposure.org/
U.S. Food and Drug Administration, http://www.fda.gov/
American Pregnancy Association, http://www.americanpregnancy.org