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Written By: Devin Golden

Asbestos Exposure for Painters

Asbestos is a durable mineral and was added to paint mixtures. Professional painters and do-it-yourself painters during the 20th century were at risk of exposure to the cancerous substance.

Retired LCDR Carl Jewett

Reviewed By

Retired LCDR Carl Jewett

VA-Accredited Claims Agent

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Important Facts About Asbestos Exposure for Painters

  • Asbestos made paint more durable as a filler or mixture. It was particularly used in shipyards and on bridges.
  • Asbestos was found in ceiling paint, silver paints, plasters, joint compounds and paint patches.
  • There have been many reported cases of mesothelioma among painters. Professional painters and do-it-yourself painters were at risk of asbestos exposure during the 20th century.

Overview of Asbestos in Paint

Asbestos was used so often and in so many products that it’s safer to assume the toxic material was present than not. The cancer-causing mineral was even found in products you wouldn’t expect, including paint. This became a risk for professional and do-it-yourself painters.

How was asbestos used in paint? Why was asbestos in paint? When was asbestos paint used for commercial and at-home projects? And how does asbestos in paint cause mesothelioma for commercial and DIY painters?

This page provides all the information available about the history of asbestos in paint and the health hazard for painters of all types.

How Were Painters Exposed to Asbestos?

Asbestos is composed of fragile fibers, which can flake off with the touch of a fingernail or a soft gust of air. These fibers are weightless and microscopic, which is why they float in the air undetected.

If asbestos fibers are loose in the paint mixture, they can put anyone nearby in danger of swallowing or inhaling the sharp particles. Painters are obviously vulnerable. Before the paint dries, asbestos mixtures were susceptible to breaking apart and escaping the paint mixture. If the fibers got free, they became dangerous.

Some painters also would hang drywall themselves, and drywall panels along with drywall joint compounds commonly included asbestos. Painters may have sanded the joint compounds on the seams or they’d be in the same room as someone working on the drywall. Being in the vicinity of work on asbestos drywall was a common source of exposure for painters.

Loose asbestos fibers can irritate lung tissue and cause lung cancer or irritate the lining of the lungs or abdominal cavity. These linings are made up of mesothelial cells, and these cells can turn into mesothelioma cancer if they are diseased.

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Find out where you may have been exposed to asbestos

A nation wide list of sites where you or a loved one may have come in contact with asbestos.

Why Was Asbestos in Paints and Coatings?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention mentions painters on a lengthy list of occupations exposed to asbestos. Exposure occurred because this toxin was often included in the most important part of the job: paint and coating.

The mineral is durable and can strengthen paint mixtures. Many companies added asbestos to their paint formulas to improve durability.

The IARC’s “Chemical Agents and Related Occupations” said it was “used as a filler to improve the technical properties of paints, particularly those used in shipyards and on bridges.” You could also find asbestos-filled paint for homes and offices. 

According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, asbestos was also found in:

  • Ceiling paint
  • Silver paints
  • Joint compounds
  • Paint patches
  • Walls, ceilings and acoustical plasters

Asbestos isn’t dangerous if it remains stable and part of a paint mixture. The issue is this mineral doesn’t always stay intact. This is how asbestos in paints and coatings becomes dangerous.

When Was Asbestos Paint Used?

For nearly all of the 20th century, asbestos was an ingredient in mixtures and compounds used in trades. It was also applied around electrical wiring, construction components and more. Asbestos is durable and resistant to fire, which made it an attractive commercial ingredient.

Asbestos was also a primary ingredient in many types of paint. This inclusion put a lot of unsuspecting Americans at risk — which they were unaware of until decades later.

Buying or using paint with asbestos is no longer a concern in the 21st century. The practice of inserting asbestos to commercial components came to a halt in the 1980s and 1990s. However, asbestos in paint was a major health risk for decades — and people may just now be dealing with the consequences.

Legacy asbestos may even persist inside the dried, old paint inside your house, apartment or office building, especially if the paint is decades old. This means the use of asbestos decades ago may continue as a hazard now.

Where Was Asbestos in Paint Used?

Asbestos was a popular part of constructing houses, office buildings, aircraft, automobiles, bridges and naval ships during the 20th century. While asbestos is no longer used in current paint or for current painting jobs, it may exist in old paint. Any scraping or chipping of paint can disturb legacy asbestos, which is the main cause of exposure for painters today.

Professional painters — whether working on bridges, shipyards, offices or homes — may be tasked with removing old paint and updating the building’s appearance. DIY projects may also involve work with old asbestos-contaminated paint.

Mesothelioma Incidence Among Painters

Occupational asbestos exposure is the No. 1 method for developing mesothelioma, a rare cancer caused solely by inhaling or swallowing loose asbestos fibers. The connection between professional painting and mesothelioma is well-documented. Four European studies showed an “increase in mortality from mesothelioma” among painters compared to the general population.

Two case-control studies — one from Canada and one from the United States — revealed 37 malignant mesothelioma cases among professional painters. Most of these cases were from 1988-1997. There likely have been many more former painters diagnosed in the 21st century.

In the British Journal of Cancer, painting was listed alongside plumbers and electricians for jobs most at risk of occupational asbestos exposure and developing mesothelioma. Asbestos is the only cause of mesothelioma, which is a rare cancer forming in the lining of the lungs and abdominal cavity.

Mesothelioma has a latency period between 20 and 50 years. Painters who worked with asbestos during the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s or 1990s might not get diagnosed until the 2020s. Even painters from the past two decades might be exposed to legacy asbestos in old paint and develop mesothelioma in the 2030s or 2040s.

How to Avoid Asbestos Exposure From Paint

If you live in an older home or manage an older office building, we encourage you to hire a professional for all paint projects. Your home or office may have asbestos in the paint, and you shouldn’t risk your health.

If you have mesothelioma — or your loved one has recently passed away from this cancer — after working as a painter, reach out to our staff. We can explain further why asbestos was used in paint for decades, along with why this use was tied to unethical business practices. You may have a valid claim and can speak to our patient advocates about filing a mesothelioma lawsuit for compensation.

Email either of our patient advocates — Karen Ritter, RN (karen@mesotheliomaguide.com) or Carl Jewett (cjewett@mesotheliomaguide.com) — to get more information.

Sources & Author

  1. Occupational, domestic and environmental mesothelioma risks in the British population: a case–control study. British Journal of Cancer. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2669989/. Accessed: 05/12/2020.
  2. Mesothelioma surveillance to locate sources of exposure to asbestos. Canadian Journal of Public Health. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9260356. Accessed: 05/12/2020.
  3. Residential proximity to naturally occurring asbestos and mesothelioma risk in California. American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15976368. Accessed: 05/12/2020.
  4. 6 Things You Need to Know About Asbestos and Home Paint. So Unique Painting & Decorating. Retrieved from: https://www.so-unique.net/6-things-you-need-to-know-about-asbestos-and-home-paint. Accessed: 05/12/2020.
  5. Occupational Exposure as a Painter. Chemical Agents and Related Occupations. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK304433/. Accessed: 05/12/2020.
  6. Who Is at Risk of Exposure to Asbestos? Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry. Retrieved from: https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/csem/csem.asp?csem=29&po=7. Accessed: 05/11/2020.
Devin Golden

About the Writer, Devin Golden

Devin Golden is a content writer for Mesothelioma Guide. He produces mesothelioma-related content on various mediums, including the Mesothelioma Guide website and social media channels. Devin's objective is to translate complex information regarding mesothelioma into informative, easily absorbable content to help patients and their loved ones.