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How do hobbies affect our indoor air quality?

How do hobbies affect our indoor air quality?

Artists have always risked their health for the love of their craft, whether they work with paint, food, cloth, wood, metal, resin or many other materials!  I’m talking about air quality here, and I guess the only art with pure air may be music.  Let’s get to the details of each and see how, in this age of technology, you may not have to sacrifice your health for your art.

Painting:  Oil paint is my favorite medium because of its rich color and shine.  When I first learned to oil paint in 2004, the school (which was a beautiful converted old mansion) had a permanent fragrance of turpentine and being a healthy person, I had no problems breathing for the 2-3 hour classes, but now I know… it’s not the paints, it’s the mediums and thinners.   Most artistic oil paints, straight from the tubes, don’t contain VOCs.  However, the turpentine and mineral oil spirits used as thinners and cleaners exude many VOCs that can pass from the lungs into the blood.  I found out later that turpentine has an odor threshold of 200 ppm in air, but the current permissible exposure limit is only 100ppm, meaning if you smell it, you’ve already been exposed to too much! (sciencedirect.com)  Acrylic paints, because they are water-based, require only soap and water cleanup.  Many art acrylic paint brands are certified as non-toxic, however some can contain agents that can emit VOCs, such as antibacterial, anti mildew, quick drying or conservant agents (woodguide.org). 

 Here are some ways to embrace painting without toxins:

  • Try oil-painting without solvents by using a brand that has a more fluid “body” such as Rembrandt or Blockx. (sophieploeg.com)

  • (for oil paints): Try solvents that have low VOCs, such as Sansodor, Zest-it or Roberson’s Studio Safe Orange Solvent.

  • If you do use a toxic thinner, paint, or brush cleaner make sure to do so outside or with plenty of ventilation (windows open, fans going).  Keep the lids on these thinners closed when you are not using them, and don’t store solvent-soaked rags in closed containers (they are a fire hazard).

  • Look for “AP-Certified Non-Toxic” or “Certified Non-Toxic”, on the label. "AP"  is a rating found on a product that is considered to be non-toxic by the ACMI in accordance with the ASTM. If the product contains the rating “CL”, this rating indicates potential risk and is rated so by the ACMI in accordance with the ASTM. (artistrunwebsite.com)  Mainly these hazards arise if the paint is ingested (use common sense!)

  • Buy from a company that is dedicated to non-toxic ingredients, such as earthsafefinishes.com.

  • If you have a pre-existing health condition and/or you use spray paints that can send finely atomized particles through the air, check out this review of best respirators for painting.   

Food:  Maybe you never thought of food as art before television elevated cooking shows to cult status.  Personally, I know of several foodies who spend months planning, shopping for and executing their Thanksgiving day menu for a crowd of 25 or more!  Being able to partake in such an “exhibition” is pure delight, but no one ever thinks about the dangers for the artists and the guests.  According to an experiment detailed in a New Yorker article, researchers cooked a Thanksgiving dinner in a test home and found that levels of fine particulate matter reached as high as 285 micrograms per cubic meter (µg/m3). In comparison, fine particulate matter levels in New Dehli, which has poor air quality, average around 225 µg/m3 during the dirtier winter months.  “Even short-term increases of just ten micrograms per cubic metre from one day to the next will increase hospital admission rates and mortality in the over sixty-fives,” according to Francesca Dominici, a biostatistician at Harvard.  All those delicious smells and aromas can be very unhealthy, but there are ways to temper them:

  • Using a rangehood exhaust fan of the appropriate power when cooking on the stovetop and even baking

  • Peeling and chopping aromatic veggies like onions and oranges near the exhaust fan

  • Cracking a window to dilute the atmosphere

  • Taking breaks outside when possible/appropriate

Sewing:  Wait a second here!  Sewing?  Granny never suffered from making our pajamas and all those quilts…or did she?  It turns out that “fiber art” (a term that includes all kinds of uses for fabric in artistic ways) puts out a lot of ultrafine particles into the air.  According to these crafters, even several HEPA filters were not enough to clean the air from heavy fabric cutting and sewing machine use.  Those who sew professionally, such as seamstresses and factory workers, are at an even higher risk because they are breathing in microfibers all day long.  Here are some ways to keep your work area safe:

  • Get an air quality monitor for your sewing/craft room.  The Indoor Air Hygiene Institute requires a PM2.5 level of 12 μg/m3 or less, with infrequent or no spikes of 35 μg/m3 or higher.  If the levels persist above 12 μg/m3 , use a mask while vacuuming or cleaning until you can get the levels down.  

  • Use a vacuum cleaner with a HEPA filter to clean everything in your sewing/craft room that can hold dust: surfaces, the floor, tops of cabinets, the sewing machine, drapes, etc. 

  • Using a bipolar ionizer like Air Angel or Germ Defender and a HEPA filter will help remove ultra-fine particles from the air.  The Air Angel and Germ Defender’s ions cause ultra-fine particles to stick together, creating larger particles that are more easily captured by the HEPA filter.

  • Try using starch on fabrics before cutting and sewing to keep it from releasing as many fibers.  A product called Mary Ellen’s Best Press is a popular starch alternative; however, its ingredients are not listed, and it cautions not to breathe its mist.  Here is a recipe for making your own Best Press. 

  • Using a polyester blend thread will produce less lint than all-cotton thread.

  • Store fabrics in plastic tubs or closed cabinets, in order to keep them from gathering dust.

  • Dispose of any old fabrics that have mold or insect damage or are degrading on their own.

  • Run fabrics through a non-heated dryer cycle or shake them outside before using to get any surface lint/dust off. 

  • Did you know that formaldehyde can be present in new fabrics (those that have not been washed) to prevent mildew and wrinkling.  Pre-washing the fabrics can remove the formaldehyde. 

If you find yourself coughing and sneezing during sewing, remember that is a sign of fibers that are irritating your throat and lungs.  However, even if you aren’t coughing while breathing the same dusty atmosphere, you are doing damage to your lungs and possibly the rest of your body!

Woodcarving:  Whittling away with a carving knife and block of wood is not detrimental to your health, unless you slip and cut some part of your body instead of the wood!  When you start to bring sandpaper and high-speed tools into your art, then you’ll release those fine and ultra-fine particles that hurt your lungs and body.  In addition, paints and lacquers used to finish the wood can introduce VOCs and toxins into the air.  This is one hobby that requires some serious air filtration.  

  • Suck it up: air filters can be located in your workspace, or outside of it.  If your workspace is within or connected to your home and you have an external dust filtration system (like this one), it will be affecting the ventilation in your house because of the negative pressure created!  Make sure that combustion gases from water heaters and stoves are properly venting, by using an air quality monitor in your home and workshop.  There are also many brands of filters you can hang in your shop to trap the finest particles, which tend to stay suspended in the air for a very long time.  These do not create a negative pressure because they suction and exhaust into the same space.

  • Many woodworking tools like saws and sanders have a port for attaching a vacuum.  When using the tool, always attach and use a HEPA vacuum! 

  • Clean it up:  Did you know that you can get HEPA filters for the traditional shop vacuums?  Just find out your model and shop for a new filter.

  • When in doubt, use a mask: thanks to the pandemic, a variety of masks have evolved that are more comfortable, durable and effective than old dust masks.  Here is one that filters up to 99.9% of all dust/air particulates and pollution sized .1 micron or greater and conforms to NIOSH N99 filter standards.  The outside is washable, but it requires new inserts (cannot be washed).  

  • Be sure to use good ventilation when performing woodburning, painting, staining and using other finishes: read the labels!

Metal arts:  Welding is a fabrication process that uses heat, pressure, or both to fuse two or more parts together, forming a joint as the parts cool. (engineeringchoice.com)  The heat is generally produced by passing an electrical current through the two metal parts.  One part is grounded, meaning the electrical current will pass to the ground, and the other part is electrified by the welding machine and the electrode (which are consumable or non-consumable).   

The gasses emitted when welding depend on the type of welding, the metals involved, and the pre-treatment of the metals, but they can be composed of: 

  • Metal fumes and fluoride exposure in the case of Shielded Metal Arc Welding (SMAW, also known as stick welding)

  • Significant levels of ozone, nitric oxide, and nitrogen dioxide gases in the case of Tungsten Inert Welding (TIG)

  • In other processes, carbon dioxide from the decomposition of fluxes, carbon monoxide from the breakdown of carbon dioxide shielding gas in arc welding, and ozone from the interaction of electric arc with atmospheric oxygen.  (Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety)

  • If the metal has been degreased with a chlorinated solvent, other airborne gases (such as phosgene, hydrogen chloride, chlorine gas, etc.) may be produced. (Occupational Health & Safety Online)

  • Hazardous fumes such as lead from painted surfaces, or chrome from chromated surfaces that heat up with the metal when welding, even if you are not directly welding that area.

It might be obvious that you would need to use lots of ventilation when welding, and with the high heat, fire protection so that nothing around you catches on fire.  There are lots of articles online about setting up an area in your attached garage to weld.  But from an air quality standpoint, this is not a good idea.  We discussed in this post that cars should not be left idling in the garage in order to prevent these noxious fumes from penetrating the shared wall with the house (and benzene, which is in gasoline), and you should take special precautions when having an attached garage in general.  Welding for a couple hours in the garage on a Saturday afternoon can do the same thing as leaving a car idling in the garage.  

Here are some things you can do to make welding a safer hobby for you and your family in terms of air quality:

  • The door between the garage and house needs to be air-tight to avoid allowing hazardous gasses to leak into the home.  Install an insulated, metal, fire-rated door with a self-closing feature, so it won’t be left open accidentally.  A good weather seal is also imperative. (HGTV.com)

  • If your garage walls are already finished with drywall, consider making the garage a negative pressure zone with an exhaust fan, at least during the time you are welding and for 30 minutes after.

  • If the garage walls are unfinished (only insulated), consider taking out any fiberglass insulation, replacing it with spray foam insulation (for its air-sealing properties when properly applied), finishing with ⅝” type X (fire-rated) gypsum board on the garage side of the walls, and using fire-rated caulk, adhesive, or expanding foam to seal up penetrations.  

  • Of course, take all the necessary precautions against fire by sealing up paints and flammable materials like paper, cardboard and rugs, and storing them well away from the welding area. Grinders can throw sparks, too.  Even the paper facing on fiberglass can catch fire, so be sure to cover anything that may be flammable with a fire-proof blanket or move it away. 

3-D printing:  3D printers are now accessible to home hobbyists because of lower pricing and material availability–what a fun thing to “print” your own part or toy!  Most 3D printers use one of 3 types of plastic to form their models.  They take raw material “thread” of ABS (acrylonitrile butadiene styrene), PLA (polylactic acid) or PETG (polyethylene gerephthalate glycol), heat it up inside the machine, and lay it down in thin layers in order to build up the model to completion in a method known as fused depositional modeling (FDM).  (explainthatstuff.com)

Heating up plastic causes a couple of issues. 

  • Risk of fire: if the thermistor detaches from your machine (accidentally but it does happen), the machine can over-heat and catch on fire or catch nearby materials on fire.  It’s best to have a smoke detector installed in the room where the printer is located, and have a fire extinguisher on hand.  

  • These plastics will give off ultra-fine particles and fumes.  You should have adequate ventilation supplied to the printer room, such that the air is exchanged four times per hour.  If possible, do not stay in the room while the machine is printing.  Also, use a fume extractor/extractor fan whenever using or cleaning up your 3D printers as there are nanoparticles released which your lungs cannot clean out. (3dprinterly.com)

  • If your printer did not come with an enclosure, it’s best to purchase one and install it.  This keeps foreign objects out of the printing process (childrens’ hands, insects, etc.) and also cuts down on particles and fumes.

  • Using a bipolar ionizer like Air Angel or Germ Defender and a HEPA filter will help remove ultra-fine particles from the air.  The Air Angel and Germ Defender’s ions cause ultra-fine particles to stick together, creating larger particles that are more easily captured by the HEPA filter.  A charcoal filter is also advised (such as these available for the Germ Defender) to remove VOCs (gases emitted from the printer). 

Our homes are havens in which we live, work and play. What other ways have you found to protect air quality so you can safely enjoy your hobbies?  Fresh, clean air throughout makes them even more enjoyable!

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