I Don’t Miss the Stinky Paint!

The irritated eyes, the dry skin, the solvent rags, the paint thinners etc.

Old timers will reminisce about the “good old days” of the painting trade. Almost everything was painted with oil paint.

“There was nothing like Satin Impervo for trim. It went on like butter and it leveled like no other paint”

“Oil flat was best for walls, so smooth and streak free”

“What about oil primers? They were the best

“Satin Impervo or Cellutone?” This was a common discussion comparing oil paints from Benjamin Moore or Pratt and Lambert.

We still hear these conversations in paint stores and occasionally on job sites. Being Ecopainting, we have to challenge this type of thinking. Some painters will even blame every paint failure on the V.O.C. regulations. If you didn’t know any better, you would think that government has it in for painters, and has these regulations to make our lives miserable.

Reality: Oil paints and solvents were harmful to painters.

The following warning was common in the Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) of just about any brand of oil paint.   
“Repeated and prolonged exposure to solvents may lead to permanent brain and nervous system damage. Eye watering, headaches, nausea, dizziness and loss of coordination are signs that solvent levels are too high.”

I remember having to paint enclosed spaces such as small bathrooms. It was not a pleasant experience to say the least. The eyes would start watering, the headaches were common. We thought that the buzz and dizziness we felt was acceptable. If you were a painter you learned to live with it.  Most of us had no idea what an MSDS was, it didn’t sound much different than VHS. We should have known better obviously but most of us didn’t. We even joked about the high we got from these chemicals.

I remember 25 years ago, we painted in a senior’s apartment building in Markham.
Being seniors, they would sometimes forget to turn off the stove elements. As a result, there was the occasional smoke damage. The ceilings had a popcorn texture and some were never painted previously. The general contractor used to specify alcohol based primers to seal the smoke stains. This was the right product to for the stains but not the right paint for our lungs. At least not without respirators and masks. We should have been more educated about this.
The odour of these products was unbearable. After painting each ceiling, we would dart out to the balcony for fresh air. We primed every ceiling so fast, as our life depended on it. In fact, our health and life did depend on it. These were the days of the young and the uneducated painters.

Painter using water based industrial enamel

We used a lot of alkyd paints in customer’s homes because it was expected of us. Homeowners were under the impression that oil paints were more durable, and in many ways they were. The kitchens and bathrooms would be painted in alkyd semi-gloss. People’s eating and cooking habits were different then. There was a lot of cooking and frying in the kitchen. Washing spaghetti sauce from ceilings or grease from around the stove was common.

The bathroom needed tough shiny paint to resist steam from showers. Later we found out that alkyd paint was never good for humid environments and mildew was everywhere. Ceilings were painted in alkyd flat and trim and woodwork in oil semi. Unfortunately white alkyd paint had a tendency to yellow after a year or so. White ceilings and woodwork did not stay white for very long. Even the main walls of a house were painted in flat and eggshell oil paint.
Painting a home was definitely a difficult situation for the residents of a home. It was obviously worse for the painters who had to do this every day. The following EPA info is for kids, I wish we all paid attention.

“Oil-based paint contains organic solvents that can be irritating to eyes and skin, and can cause cracking of skin. Inhaling paint fumes can result in headaches, nausea, dizziness, and make you very tired (fatigued) if you breath in the fumes for too long without good air circulation. …
If you are exposed to the chemicals in these types of products often you may experience other longer term problems such as kidney, liver or blood effects.”

The Painting trade is better off today

As the environmental movement grew, more information became available to us. Consumers expected manufacturers to do something about their chemicals. Market savvy companies saw this as an opportunity to differentiate themselves. They invested a lot of money in research & development to find alternative, less harmful coatings. The regulatory bodies were pushed by the public to do something about the atmospheric damage of paints.

A few years later, most paint manufacturers claim to have greener versions of their paints. Their intensive research and development paid off. The new formulations do indeed make today’s paints less harmful.

To recoup the initial investment, the new paints had to be of better quality. Years of consumer and professional field experience confirm that the new eco paints are indeed better. We now have:

  • Zero VOC (Volatile Organic Compounds) paints available for almost any application.
  • Zero or very low VOC stain primers
  • Safer cleaning products.
  • Water based Direct To Metal (DTM), industrial paints.
  • Waterbourne colourants replacing the old solvent based colourants.

It used to take some smart specifying for a painting company to be eco-friendly. You can now walk into any paint store and you can find less harmful coatings for any surface.
And the painters?  Well… we still need to keep our eyes open and read all MSDS and stay informed. Following all safety precautions is still a priority.

We never had it so good at the job site. At least as far as exposure to paint and chemicals is concerned.

Note: this is an update of the original blog that was written in November of 2012.

3 thoughts on “Remember Oil Paints?”

  1. Great reminders! I am sure there are many painters who have health issues now from not using proper safety precautions in the “old days”

    • Thanks Chris. I am sure all the safety information and MSDS was available, but it was definitely not encouraged by most.


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