MinnPost: You should know the risks of using solvent-based paint

Minnesota has failed to keep workers and consumers safe from deadly substances that require stronger regulation. The Legislature should act.

by Zach Thoemke

Originally published April 17, 2024 in MinnPost

I’m a professional commercial painter. I deal with toxic chemicals daily. In one of my first painting jobs, I worked 10-hour shifts overnight in a non-union company wiping down windows with an acetone-soaked rag, with no access to gloves, a respirator or other personal protective equipment.

No one told me or the other workers on the site of the life-changing dangers associated with the unprotected use of acetone, a dangerous solvent, and I continue to be impacted by skin injuries from my exposure to this day, over 10 years later.

This isn’t a case of a single bad actor company — it’s emblematic of the pervasive failure of our state to keep Minnesota workers and consumers safe from deadly substances that require higher regulation.

When private consumers use or are around hazardous solvent-based paints, they’re being put at risk for disfiguring chemical burns, permanent neurological damage, irreversible blindness, infertility, and so much more. In the worst-case scenario, you can die if you inhale a Category 1 solvent, like xylene, a paint thinner. It smells innocuous and sweet, but it’s deadly.

Today, I’m a professional commercial painter and a member of IUPAT DC 82. Learning about the extreme levels of risk I took on working with solvents in non-union environments was eye-opening, and that is why I’m speaking out to warn Minnesotans about those dangers. Nothing this hazardous should be so readily available without increased worker and consumer protection.

Solvent-based paint is what we use in infrastructure coatings projects, like on steel bridges and water towers. They’re very heavy-duty and can withstand large temperature and humidity fluctuations over time. For professional painters to use these paints safely, we train for years, and when they’re used, we wear hazmat-like suits, eye protection and respirators and contain the painting area with hundreds of yards of tarping to protect our neighbors from inhaling or coming into contact with these paints. 

The average homeowner does not need to take these extreme precautions if they’re painting their home, interior or exterior, because they do not have to use solvent-based paints to get the job done.

Every day, home and business owners use solvent-based paint in their homes and offices with no protection to understand the risks. We have to do better. 

Even in the most well-trained job sites staffed by workers with years of specialized training and experience, the risk of solvent injury is still present. You’d be hard-pressed to find a professional commercial or industrial painter who hasn’t at least gotten minor chemical burns on the job or felt light-headed after work, even while using the best protective equipment money can buy. The public simply doesn’t have to take that kind of risk.

The best way to protect workers and consumers is to ensure that only trained and licensed workers use these professional-grade products. Workers and the public should be educated about the hazards presented by these products if misused. Average homeowners should still be able to purchase paint and safe quantities of solvent-based products to complete home improvement projects. Irresponsible contractors that expose untrained workers to unlimited quantities of these products should be held accountable. 

Now is the time for the Minnesota Legislature to establish common-sense guidelines for the use of professional-grade paint products.

Zach Thoemke, of New Brighton, is a commercial painter and organizer with IUPAT District Council 82 in the Twin Cities.