It is unlikely that a brief low dose exposure to paint fumes will cause any of the conditions that may be associated with occupational exposure throughout pregnancy. Water-based paints or latex paints pose no increased reproductive risk because they have low volatility. However, solvent-based paints and old paintwork (which may contain traces of lead) may pose a greater risk. For this reason, you should avoid using solvent-based paints and stripping old paintwork while you're pregnant.
Risk of paint fumes and decorating materials
The risk of fumes from modern household paints harming your baby is low. But it's impossible to know exactly how small the risk is. This is because it's very difficult to measure the substances and chemicals your body absorbs during activities such as painting.
Very little research has been carried out into the effects of paint fumes on unborn babies. However, the few studies carried out show that the risk is extremely low.
Any small risk there is to your baby is greatest during your first trimester (weeks 0-13). This is because your baby's organs start to develop during the first trimester. Any harmful fumes or chemicals at this stage could affect your baby more severely.
Therefore, as a precaution, it's best to avoid painting and decorating until at least the 14th week of your pregnancy.
Most chemicals that are known to be harmful to developing babies are not contained in household paints. However, before the 1970s, many paints contained elements of lead (a metal which can be poisonous if it enters the body).
Therefore, it's best not to strip down old paint work if you're pregnant, or planning to get pregnant. If the paint you are stripping contains lead, you could inhale it in the clouds of dust which come from stripping the paint. This could potentially harm the development of your baby.
Solvent-based paints can contain varying levels of substances that can be harmful, such as white spirit, xylene, toluene and alkanes. Long-term exposure to solvents can seriously affect a developing baby. Solvents can irritate the thin lining of cells (mucous membranes) of many parts of your body, such as your nose, mouth and eyes. They can also cause headaches and nausea.
'Quick drying paints' often have a high solvent content, and will usually smell unpleasant.
If possible, you should avoid using solvent-based paints while pregnant, to help minimize any risk of the fumes or substances affecting your baby.
For example, if you frequently use solvents, or materials containing high levels of solvent substances, (perhaps as part of your job) then your baby may be at risk. Talk to your employer if your job requires you to frequently use solvent-based products.
Reducing the risk
If you want to completely eliminate the risk of paint fumes affecting your baby, then you should avoid doing any painting or decorating.
However, if you do choose to do some painting or decorating, there are some steps you can take, to help prevent paint or chemical fumes affecting your baby. For example:
- Use paints and decorating materials which are labeled as being suitable for nurseries or children's rooms, as these materials should contain fewer chemicals.
- Use water-based paints instead of solvent-based ones.
- Avoid using spray paints and other decorating materials containing solvents.
- If you're unsure what chemicals or substances are contained in your paint or decorating material, contact the manufacturer, who should be able to advise you.
- Make sure any room you paint in is well ventilated, by opening any windows or doors.
- Use gloves, long trousers, and long sleeved tops to help protect your skin.
You should also avoid drinking or eating in a room you're decorating in, and wash your hands when you've finished painting. This way you won't accidentally swallow (ingest) any of the decorating materials.
If you're pregnant always make sure you take it easy when decorating — try and leave any physically demanding or potentially dangerous tasks to someone else.