Are You Painting While Pregnant?

Painting can be a very satisfying thing to do, whether you painting on canvas as an artist, or designing new walls for a room that you’ll be transforming into a nursery. In both cases, working with paint materials can be relaxing, and so there is potential for a positive effect, both for you and your fetus. But paint is a mixture of various chemical compounds, which does warrant some discussion and consideration when you are preparing for motherhood, so let’s talk a little about paint.

Paint that is used on walls inside your home includes organic solvents, chemicals that actually have raised some concerns in pregnancy settings. Many years ago, the presence of lead in house paint was also an issue, but lead-based paint has not been used indoors since the early 1970s. Thus, lead is a consideration, only for those who live in very old buildings. On the other hand, lead is just one type of heavy metal, and various heavy metals can be present in certain art supplies, particularly oil paints, some of which may contain cadmium, cobalt, or other heavy metals.

Numerous organic solvents also are present in house paint, and in some paints that are used for arts and crafts. Paint organic solvents can be released into the air. However, it is not always so easy to determine the concentrations of each solvent in the air that a pregnant woman is breathing. This means that defining safety, in terms of a particular amount of paint, paint fumes, or the concentrations of organic solvents in the fumes, is can be difficult.

There is some evidence that exposure to organic solvents like the ones present in house paint can increase the time that it takes to become pregnant. Evidence also supports the idea that exposure to organic solvents, similar to those organic solvents present in house paint, can increase the risk of a woman suffering a spontaneous abortion (miscarriage). Research also suggests that exposure to organic solvents can increase a mothers chance of having a baby with a neural tube defect (NTD), meaning incomplete closure of the layers of tissue covering the brain or spinal cord, and the risk of having a baby with an orofacial cleft (OFC), a split in a structure of the mouth or face). Paternal exposure to organic solvents, like those on paint, prior to conception may possibly increase the risk of your baby suffering an NTD.

On the other hand, the long-term effects on the baby’s mental health of maternal exposure to paint are not well understood at all. Concern about congenital defects resulting from maternal paint exposure is greatest during the first trimester, but you should minimize exposure throughout pregnancy.

As for breastfeeding, organic solvents, and lead, can get into breast milk. However, this is generally a concern for nursing women only in industrial settings, rather than in the home. A good deal of information on paint and other items that may be a health issue during pregnancy can be found on the website of the US National Institute for Occupational Safety. The website is oriented mostly around workplace exposures, but the materials related to painting also are relevant to paint in the home environment.

David Warmflash
Dr. David Warmflash is a science communicator and physician with a research background in astrobiology and space medicine. He has completed research fellowships at NASA Johnson Space Center, the University of Pennsylvania, and Brandeis University. Since 2002, he has been collaborating with The Planetary Society on experiments helping us to understand the effects of deep space radiation on life forms, and since 2011 has worked nearly full time in medical writing and science journalism. His focus area includes the emergence of new biotechnologies and their impact on biomedicine, public health, and society.

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