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Written by Henry P. Shotwell, Ph.D., CIH, Vice-President and Robert E. Sheriff, MS, CIH, CSP & President
November 7, 2018
Paint thinner, the stuff you buy by the quart in any hardware store, goes by many names and has as many ingredients. We also know it by many names such as Stoddard Solvent, VM&P Naphtha, White Spirit, Naphtha, Petroleum Naphtha, Lacquer Thinner, Petroleum Distillates, Petroleum Hydrocarbons among others.
No matter what you call it, paint thinner is a mixture of volatile organic chemicals (VOCs) formulated to have low flammability/combustibility, and no two manufacturers make their product the same way. Suffice it to say most, if not all, are petrolium products. Paint thinners are usually combustible, rather than flammable. While paint thinner doesn’t evaporate quite as quickly as gasoline, for example, it can still build up a concentration if used in a small room with little or no ventilation to remove built-up vapors.
The OSHA 8-hour time-weighted exposure limit for paint thinner (as Stoddard Solvent) is 500 parts per million (ppm). This is half the OSHA limit for exposure to acetone (nail polish remover), so paint thinners are not terribly hazardous. But, it has to be remembered that paint thinner vapors can irritate the eyes, nose and throat, in spite of their fairly pleasant odor, and can make one dizzy and/or nauseous if the vapors are inhaled in high enough levels over a long enough time period. Even though the OSHA permissible exposure limit (PEL) is 500ppm, because of the varied content of paint thinners, it is generally recommended to keep the exposure below 100ppm as a reasonable margin of safety even though it is not required.
Paint thinners at high levels can also be a fire/explosive hazard. I recall one instance where two workers were cleaning the floor of the plant on a Saturday morning of sticky resin by pouring paint thinner on the floor. They took a thirty-minute break to let the paint thinner soak in and loosen up the resin. When they returned to work, they used a metal scraper. It caused a spark resulting in a vapor explosion. By the time the sprinklers activated, it was too late. Neither man survived.
The bottom line is that paint thinners can be used safely if used according to the instructions on the label, or the information in the Safety Data Sheet (SDS). Most SDS’s recommend ventilation and respiratory protection. If respirators are used it is important to have the workers sampled to determine if the correct respirator is used. This also means that the provisions of the respirator protection standard (20 CFR 1910.134) are implemented including training of workers.
There may be many other solvent type chemicals that are hazardous. The important thing is to obtain a SDS for the specific product of concern since all these “paint thinners” may have a variety of characteristics-some more hazardous than others. Search the other articles or the other pages of our website for details, e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 1-800-344-4414.
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