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  QUESTION: Can auto paint fumes harm unborn baby? 05 Apr 2003, Pennsylvania USA

I work in the auto body repair shop. the paint is petroleum based. i'm not sure if it has lead in it or not. i work in the office but worried that the paint fumes can travel into the office and harm my unborn baby. do you know?

ANSWER: 07 Apr 2003

Dear Tami,

There are certainly some components of petroleum-based paints which can harm your unborn baby but it is not clear to me whether you are being exposed to the fumes in sufficient concentrations to cause a problem. Also, there may or may not be lead in the paint depending on the colour of the paint. Are you also exposed to dust particles when the vehicles are being prepared for re-painting? If the older paints that are already on the vehicles are released into the air during sanding of the surface, then the fine paint dust may also travel to your office imperceptibly. It is much harder to find out what the old paint dust contains than it is to find out what the new paint contains. As a precaution, you should do several things. Have a blood lead test - this will answer several questions at once. If the blood lead level is higher than 10 micrograms per decilitre and you are not involved in any other activities that might expose you to lead outside of work (eg renovating a pre-1978 building or doing leadlighting) then the elevated blood lead level will tell you that there is most likely lead in the company's process, and exactly how much you are being exposed to it. If lead is in the company's process, then lead can also act as a marker for other toxics in the paint dust or fumes. If your lead level is low however, then your exposure to solvents and other toxic paint ingredients is not necessarily low. You need to work out whether the office has a separate air conditioning unit or separate air space to the workshop. If you can actually smell fumes in the office then either there is no separation of the air or the filters are inadequate to the task of supplying the office with clean air. You should ask at work for a copy of the Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDSs) of the products being applied to the vehicles. Also ask for the MSDSs for the old paint if there is inadequate control of the sanding dust, but know that the answer could be "that's impossible - we deal with thousands of different paints and there's no requirement that we know what's in them as long as no-one is exposed to the dust" or similar. You can show the MSDSs to your doctor to ascertain whether any other tests would be relevant for you.

Organic solvents in general have been associated with low birth weight, pregnancy problems, birth defects and leukaemia in children, but the actual solvents and other ingredients in both the old and the new paint, will each be associated with their own health effects. For example, the reported reproductive hazards of toluene include menstrual and other gynaecological disorders, low birth weight, birth defects and spontaneous abortions. See for reproductive hazards of lead. An actual painter is far more likely to suffer these effects due to the much higher level of exposure, than someone supposedly protected in an office.

If the painters at your workplace have blood lead tests regularly, then you could ask what the range of results is (to gauge whether you might be at risk) but they may claim that for the sake of privacy they can't tell you. If there is no blood lead testing and the full range of vehicle paint colours being worked on has not been lead tested, it is not safe to assume that there is no lead exposure. By this time however, you may have asked too many questions but hopefully that won't stop you.
It is my experience that US occupational health and safety regulations are more likely to be enforced than Australian regulations so it would be valuable for you to contact your local office of the state occupational health and safety agency to ask the same questions you have asked the Global Lead Advice and Support Service.

It would be great if you could keep in touch and let me know how it goes for you and the baby.

Yours sincerely
Elizabeth O'Brien

See: Lead in Autopaints

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