Paint thinner is a common solvent used to thin oil-based paints, clean brushes, and remove paint from surfaces. This liquid hydrocarbon product contains volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that can be extremely dangerous if used improperly. But can exposure to paint thinner kill you?
Paint thinner is a petroleum-based solvent used primarily for thinning oil-based paints, cleaning paint brushes, and other equipment. The active ingredient in most paint thinners is mineral spirits, a petroleum distillate.
Some of the common ingredients in paint thinner include:
- Mineral spirits – a petroleum-based solvent
- Toluene – a potent solvent derived from petroleum
- Xylene – a solvent obtained from petroleum
- Methanol – a toxic alcohol solvent
- Acetone – a volatile solvent with a sharp odor
- Methyl ethyl ketone (MEK) – an industrial solvent known for its quick-drying properties
Paint thinner is highly flammable and emits strong fumes due to the high VOC content. The exact composition varies by brand. Some paint thinners advertise as low-odor or low-VOC formulations.
Dangers and Health Risks of Paint Thinner
Paint thinner contains compounds that irritate the skin, eyes, mucous membranes, and respiratory tract. Inhaling the vapors can cause dizziness, headaches, nausea and other acute symptoms. More severe effects like organ damage may occur with prolonged exposure.
Here are some of the major health risks associated with paint thinner exposure:
Inhalation of Fumes
The most common danger is inhaling the fumes containing hydrocarbons like toluene, xylene and methyl ethyl ketone. At high concentrations, the vapors can cause headaches, nausea, dizziness and even loss of consciousness.
Long-term inhalation can lead to neurological issues like memory loss, vision problems, loss of coordination and permanent brain damage. Kidney, liver and respiratory damage may also occur over time.
The vapors displace oxygen in enclosed spaces, leading to asphyxiation. Inhaling fumes intentionally to get high also carries serious risks including sudden death.
Skin and Eye Contact
Direct skin contact with paint thinner liquid or vapors can cause irritation, redness, drying and cracking. Repeated exposure can cause contact dermatitis.
Eye contact with paint thinner fumes or liquid can be very irritating. Exposure may result in stinging, watering and redness of the eyes.
Drinking or swallowing paint thinner can be fatal even in small amounts. As little as 30ml can be lethal for an adult if ingested.
The hydrocarbon solvents get rapidly absorbed from the gastrointestinal tract into the bloodstream, causing toxicity to the heart, liver, kidneys and central nervous system. This can lead to organ failure and death.
Inhaling paint thinner fumes irritates the nose, throat and respiratory tract. It can exacerbate asthma and make breathing difficult in some individuals.
Repeated exposure to vapors can cause chronic lung inflammation, bronchitis, chemical pneumonia and long-term respiratory damage.
Factors that Increase Risks
While exposure to paint thinner fumes poses health risks for anyone, the following factors can increase vulnerability:
- Working with paint thinners in an enclosed space with poor ventilation
- Intentional inhalation of fumes to get high
- Underlying respiratory issues like asthma or allergies
- Liver or kidney problems which reduce ability to detoxify chemicals
- Repeated and prolonged exposure over months or years
- Children and infants have higher sensitivity due to developing organs
Can Fumes Kill You? Acute Risks of Paint Thinner
In some circumstances, exposure to paint thinner carries an immediate risk of death. This can occur through two main mechanisms:
Inhaling highly concentrated fumes in an enclosed space can displace oxygen, leading to asphyxiation or suffocation. As oxygen levels drop, breathing becomes difficult leading to loss of consciousness, coma and death.
This risk is higher in small enclosed spaces like tanks or silos when paint thinner fumes accumulate. Always work in well-ventilated areas.
Sniffing or huffing paint thinner fumes purposefully to get a brief high carries a high risk of sudden death from cardiac arrest. The toxic hydrocarbons sensitize the heart to adrenaline released during inhalation, causing fatal arrhythmia.
Deaths have also been reported from injecting or ingesting paint thinner. Even small ingested amounts can be rapidly fatal.
Long Term Effects of Paint Thinner Exposure
Repeated low-level exposure to paint thinner over months or years also carries health risks, including:
Long-term inhalation of paint thinner vapors can cause permanent brain and nervous system damage. Symptoms include memory loss, cognitive decline, vision issues, loss of coordination and motor control.
Liver and Kidney Damage
The solvents in paint thinner can accumulate in the liver and kidneys causing cellular damage and impaired function. This may progress to liver cirrhosis or kidney failure in severe cases.
Chronic exposure to paint thinner vapors can lead to asthma, chronic bronchitis, chemical pneumonia or lung scarring. This increases the risk of respiratory infections and breathing problems.
Some compounds in paint thinners like benzene and methylene chloride are known carcinogens. Long-term exposure may increase cancer risk but more research is needed in this area.
High exposure to paint thinner has been linked to reduced fertility in both men and women. Some solvents like toluene may increase risks of fetal development issues if exposed during pregnancy.
First Aid for Paint Thinner Exposure
If you or someone else experiences signs of paint thinner toxicity, promptly move to fresh air and get medical help. General first aid guidelines include:
- Inhalation – Move the person to fresh air and give oxygen if available. Perform CPR if breathing has stopped.
- Skin contact – Remove contaminated clothing and rinse skin thoroughly with water. Launder clothes before re-wearing.
- Eye contact – Flush eyes with running water for 15 minutes while lifting eyelids. Remove contact lenses.
- Ingestion – Call poison control and seek urgent medical care. DO NOT induce vomiting unless instructed by poison control.
Preventing Exposure and Using Safely
While paint thinner is hazardous if handled unsafely, the risks can be minimized by following proper safety practices:
- Use paint thinners only in well-ventilated outdoor areas or with local exhaust ventilation indoors. Avoid breathing in fumes.
- Wear protective equipment like respirators, gloves, and goggles when using.
- Keep away from heat and flames as paint thinner is highly flammable.
- Store tightly capped in a cool, dry place away from children and pets. Dispose according to local hazardous waste regulations.
- Never intentionally inhale or ingest paint thinner products. Avoid contact with skin and eyes.
- Limit exposure duration and take frequent fresh air breaks.
- Consider using alternate products like acrylic paints that can be cleaned with water.
Paint thinner contains volatile chemicals that can be toxic with acute high-level exposure or prolonged low-level exposure. The primary risks are from inhaling concentrated vapors leading to asphyxiation or cardiac arrest, as well as long-term neurological, organ, and respiratory damage. While potentially lethal if misused, taking proper safety precautions can reduce the risks when using paint thinners.