When spray painting, workers can be exposed to highly volatile and toxic materials. Paint coatings have three major types of components: pigments, which give them their color; binders, which cement the pigment particles to each other and to the product; and solvents, which give the paint a consistency that will spray easily.
Within each group are a number of substances recognized as health hazards. Many pigments are virtually harmless. Titanium dioxide, a pigment in wide use in paints, is considered to be a nuisance dust. Some pigments are more hazardous.
Although prohibited in architectural consumer uses, various lead compounds are still being used as industrial pigments, and the hazard of chronic lead poisoning is still prevalent. Workers with this condition may suffer weakness, weight loss, insomnia, anemia, and pains in their muscles and joints.
Chromium compounds are found in some paints. Some forms of it may cause cancer. Some coatings use organic isocyanates as curing agents. They can be irritants to the eye and the respiratory system and may result in sensitization of the worker. Other known irritants and sensitizers also find use in coatings.
Petroleum distillates are the most common paint solvents. Other examples are ketones, esters, glycols, toluene, and xylene. In general, these chemicals irritate the eyes, skin, and respiratory tract. They can be particularly dangerous because many of them are colorless and look like water.
At high concentrations some solvents can cause headaches, drowsiness, and unconsciousness. Repeated contact with the skin can cause prolonged and severe dermatitis. This is often a problem where solvents are used for cleanup.
When spraying, there's always paint that misses or bounces off the target. This overspray can cause exposure to toxic paint components. Although more recent process innovations such as electrostatic and airless equipment have greatly reduced overspray, these techniques are not suitable for all situations.
Compressed air operations, where often as much paint is wasted as is applied to the product, will be common for a long time to come. The economics of the problem are obvious. Buying twice as much paint as necessary takes money. Providing ways to contain and dispose of that extra paint after it misses the surface it was intended to coat take money and time.
The human costs are also potentially great. Coatings that spray painters apply can enter their bodies through the nose, mouth, and skin. From there they can enter the respiratory system, the digestive system, and the bloodstream.