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All About Paint Fumes and Pregnancy

Gabrielle Applebury
Reviewed by Terri Forehand RN
Pregnant woman painting a wall

Although paint fumes should be avoided in general, extra caution should be taken during pregnancy. Whether you are interested in painting an interior room, an exterior structure, or hobby painting, there are some major differences between paints to keep in mind before you proceed.

Interior and Exterior Paints

Interior and exterior paints are made up of water or mineral solvents, resin, pigments and additives. Exterior paints also contain extra additives and additional resin so they can last through various types of weather. Compared to interior paints, exterior paints release higher levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), like benzene and methylene chloride.

The American Cancer Society lists both benzene and methylene chloride as known carcinogens and probable known carcinogens, respectively, for both humans and animals. The release of VOCs can occur during the drying process and can continue to do so years after the paint has cured. These fumes can trigger the mother's allergies, induce headaches and cause respiratory issues.

Concerns Throughout Pregnancy

Not a lot of studies have explored paint fume exposure during pregnancy in humans. Studies that have been conducted found some serious risks for the growing fetus. Research suggests that exposure to paint fumes during the first trimester has the potential to increase the risk of having a baby born with congenital anomalies in the nervous system and renal system. There were also reports of congenital anomalies of the ear, neck and face.

More Potential Dangers

Another study found that throughout the course of pregnancy, there was an increased risk of childhood onset acute lymphoblastic leukemia in situations where more than three indoor rooms were painted, when oil-based paints and paint strippers were used, and when the mom-to-be painted the exterior of the house with oil-based paints. There was also an increased risk when a hired professional painted the interior of the home when the mother was present. This may be due to an increased amount of paint being used.

These studies suggest that interior and exterior paints can increase the risk of health and developmental issues for the mother and baby when the mother has been exposed to paint fumes during the course of her pregnancy.

Lead Based Paints

Homes built in the 1970s or earlier may have lead-based paint. The Department of Health recommends that pregnant women and children never work with these paints because of the risk of lead poisoning. Lead poisoning can occur from inhaling or swallowing lead. Lead exposure during pregnancy can lead to premature birth, low birth weight, miscarriage, and learning and behavioral problems, as well as brain, nervous system and kidney problems in the child.

Lead poisoning in adults can impact blood pressure and cause headaches, mood disorders, abdominal pain and respiratory issues. If you are pregnant, avoid home construction projects, stripping away lead based paint to start a new project, and gardening near the home if you suspect there is lead based paint. If you do need home repairs done, hire a lead paint specialist to remove old paint to ensure the safety of you and your growing baby.

Hobby Paints

Hobby painting includes painting on canvas, painting model figures, spray painting, painting pottery, and painting furniture, among other interests. Because most hobby painting projects are smaller in scale compared to homes, this tends to result in using less paint, having shorter drying times, and spending less time around paint fumes.

Solvents and Risks

Oil or latex paints tend to have higher levels of solvents, so stick to watercolor, acrylic and tempera paints if possible. These paints still let off toxic fumes, but at a much lower volume compared to oil or latex paints. No matter what project you are completing, keep in mind that spray paints and watercolor paints do contain solvents. Spray paints contain acetone, xylene, and toluene, which are known to cause eye, skin, respiratory and gastrointestinal irritation.

Stay on the Safe Side

Always speak with your doctor before beginning any new painting project to ensure your safety and your baby's safety. There haven't been significant studies conducted when it comes to hobby painting during pregnancy, but it is generally best to stay safe and to avoid inhaling paint fumes during the entirety of your pregnancy.

Precautions to Take

If you must be around paint, be sure to limit your time spent around the fumes while pregnant. You may also want to:

Pregnant woman consulting with doctor
  • Wear protective clothing
  • Wear gloves and a mask
  • Avoid eating or drinking around the painting project
  • Keep your food in a separate room
  • Take breaks often
  • Open windows so the room stays well ventilated
  • Stop immediately if you feel faint, get a headache, or feel sick
  • Dispose of paint appropriately

Keeping Mommy and Baby Safe

If in doubt, always ask your doctor about the safety of an upcoming painting project. If possible, try to avoid spending long periods of time around paint fumes to ensure safety for you and your growing baby.

All About Paint Fumes and Pregnancy