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Certain chemicals in paint cause cancer

What you may have heard

Interior or exterior house painting is associated with cancer.

What science tells us

Paint chemicals contain thousands of chemical compounds. The main organic solvents used in paints are toluene, xylene, aliphatic compounds, ketones, alcohols, esters, and glycol esters. The amount of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) released are similar to those of water-based paints (Chen et al.).

People who work in the paint industry are exposed to the chemicals found in paint products during their application and removal. In the past, exposure to hazardous substances often exceeded current occupational limits, but exposure levels have greatly decreased over time.

Epidemiological Evidence

Occupational exposure as a painter is classified as a Group 1 carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) based on increased risk of lung cancer, urinary bladder cancer, and mesothelioma (IARC). But the IARC Working Group could not identify any particular agent in paint that increases cancer risk.

There is some evidence of a link between childhood leukemia and paint chemical exposure, but more research is required because current studies have inconsistent results.

Laboratory Evidence/Supporting Evidence

There is some toxicology evidence that organic solvents can cause cancer in animal studies. Some of the studies used solvent mixtures, so further research is required to see if there is one specific organic solvent that is the main cause. Researchers concluded that DNA damage occurred when exposed to these organic solvents (Lynge et al.).

IARC Carcinogen Classification: Group 1 for Cadmium, Group 2A for inorganic lead, Group 2A for styrene, Group 2 for Benzene, Group 3 (for Xylenes), Group 3 (for Toluene), Group 3 for Chromium 

All are ingredients in paint.

How to reduce your risk

Paint chemical exposure poses the greatest risk in a workplace setting. If you work with paint on a regular basis, it is important to wear masks and other protective gear to avoid exposure. In addition, during the first couple of days after paint is applied, keep away from it and increase ventilation out of the indoor space (Chen et al.). Don’t paint your home while you’re pregnant.

Bottom line

Occupational paint exposure is classified as a Group 1 carcinogen by IARC. If you have regular exposure to freshly applied paint, make sure to wear a mask, work in a well-ventilated area, or use other protective measures.

International Research Agency on Cancer (IARC): Occupational exposure as a painter
Chen et al.: A meta-analysis of painting exposure and cancer mortality
American Lung Association: Volatile Organic Compounds


Published: July 7, 2021
Verified/updated: August 22, 2022