This is a scare article. We don't want to scare you into abandoning restoration. Rather, we want to scare you into observing sensible precautions.
After reviewing a lot of literature, we have succeeded in scaring ourselves. The new information is not going to stop our restoration activities, but it sure is going to change how we do some things.
A European building restorer on a recent trip to the United States remarked that American restorers are "chemical crazy." He was astonished at the number of organic chemicals used in such a casual way by owners of old houses.
What follows is by no means an exhaustive survey of all physical and chemical hazards in restoration work. But it does summarize some of the most common dangers.
Removal of surface coating is probably the most dangerous restoration activity. There are toxicity hazards both from the removers and from the paints being removed. Fire is also a danger.
The fumes from many, if not all, commercial paint removers are toxic to some degree. Severe damage to lung tissue has resulted from prolonged exposure to such fumes. Even more serious is the recent discovery that methylene chloride -- the active ingredient in many removers -- can have fatal effects.
When inhaled, methylene chloride is broken down in the body to form carbon monoxide -- a toxic substance. Exposure for two or three hours can result in levels of carbon monoxide combined with hemoglobin in the blood that add stress to the cardiovascular system. This can be quite serious for people with a weakened or diseased cardiovascular system. Cases' of fatal heart attacks following exposure to paint-removing substances have been reported in medical literature.
The solvent benzene is especially dangerous. Benzene can be absorbed through the skin -- and the presence of as little as 25 parts per million is considered dangerous. Benzene has been linked to some forms of liver cancer and to bone marrow failure.
The incredients in one finish reviver used by a museum are methylene chloride, toluene, acetone, methanol or denatured alcohol, and benzene.
Vapors from all these chemicals (except toluene and denatured alcohol) are considered hazardous.
Use adequate ventilation. Preferably, work outdoors. Never use paint removers in an enclosed basement workshop. If you are stripping wood inside the house, be sure to have windows open -- and use a fan to disperse concentrations of chemical vapor. It is especially difficult to ventilate properly in cold weather. But it is better to turn off the heating plant, open the windows wide and work shivering in layers of sweatshirts than it is to risk the health hazards of breathing chemical fumes in a warm, enclosed room.
Use rubber gloves to avoid absorption of solvents through the skin. Be wary of pin-hole leaks; they make the gloves useless. Whenever a fingertip or other part of the hand feels cool, there is probably a leak.
Flammable paint removers (the types containing benzol) and organic solvents (such as alcohol, mineral spirits, etc.) present special fire hazards. The danger is not simply from throwing a lighted cigarette into the can. Vapors from the organic solvents are heavier than air and tend to accumulate at floor level. If you are working in a cellar, these vapors can be ignited by a furnace or water heater.
There is also a potentially lethal combination in flammable remover, steel wool and electrical outlets. If you are removing paint from paneling and your steel wool contacts an electrical outlet, the resulting sparks can ignite any flammable remover that may be spread on the adjacent woodwork.
When working inside, use only nonflammable removers whenever possible.
If a particular procedure dictates the use of a flammable remover or solvent, be sure to work with windows opens and a fan blowing to avoid buildup of combustible vapors at floor level. Never use flammable removers in the cellar.
If you must work with steel wool and flammable materials near electric outlets, cut off the power by pulling fuses or throwing the circuit breakers.
In handling paint removers, keep the material off the skin -- and especially out of the eyes. Make sure there is running water at hand to flush away immediately any accidental spills on the body. If there isn't any running water, have a large bucket of clean, fresh water in the area. An eye cup (available at any drugstore) should be a standard piece of safety equipment.
Lead poisoning is another hazard associated with paint removal. Lead has long been acknowledged as an occupational hazard for painters. Yet many old-house owners who enthusiastically start out sanding and torching off old paint do not recognize that they are exposing themselves to possible lead poisoning.
Some symptoms of lead poisoning are dizziness, nausea and a general malaise. Renovators suffering lead poisoning may mistakenly ascribe their symptoms to fatigue or a cold. Prolonged exposure to lead paint particles can do permanent damage to vital organs and the central nervous system. Children and pregnant women are especially vulnerable.
Clem Labine is editor of the Old-House Journal, free samples of which can be obtained by writing: The Old-House Journal, 199 Berkeley Pl., Brooklyn, N.Y. 11217.