Chemicals in Paint Fumes Linked with Autism: New Study

People having their homes, apartments or workplaces painted over the summer should be aware of the findings of another scientific study linking paint fumes to serious adverse health consequences. While the study focused on people who worked around the chemicals of concern such as those in house paint, the results present a cautionary tale for all of us.

According to the new study funded in part by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and published in the journal Occupational & Environmental Medicine, women exposed to common paint chemicals at work are more likely to have a child with autism spectrum disorder.  The findings are in line with previous studies that have found an association between paint chemicals and autism. Additionally, there is a growing body of evidence linking the many chemicals of concern such as Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) (including benzene) found in paint and its fumes to a number of health issues…

Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) as a concern

VOC levels are usually much higher indoors than out, especially if those indoor areas are not well ventilated. And wet or drying paint—particularly oil-based paints—tend to emit a lot of VOCs.  Research has found that some of VOCs can be absorbed into the blood through contact with the skin or through inhalation, and that they can accumulate in the brain or organs of those who are exposed. The liver also breaks down some of these chemicals into byproducts that can bind to and potentially interfere with a cell’s genetic material.

Breathing in high levels of VOCs can cause a number of short-term health problems, from headaches and dizziness to a runny nose and itchy eyes. Some VOCs may also cause nervous system and organ damage*, according to the American Lung Association. Maternal exposure to some VOCs found in paint may raise the risk for low birth weight, which in turn is associated with an increased risk for delayed development or learning disabilities.

Benzene is in the class of chemicals known as volatile organic compounds (VOCs).  Benzene is an established carcinogen that turns up in some paints, particularly oil-based paints, as well as in art and crafts supplies like glue and dry-erase markers, vehicle exhaust, and pesticides.  Spending time in a poorly ventilated and newly painted room could expose people to elevated benzene levels.

Are low-VOC paints safer?  Not necessarily.

Paints may contain other chemicals such as binders, corrosion inhibitors and preservatives that may contribute to their toxicological properties. And research has found that even zero-VOC paints still emit chemical gasses.


When painting always open windows and doors and turn on a fan. This can increase ventilation and carry away any potentially harmful fumes. Once paint has fully dried—something that happens more quickly in warm, dry conditions (usually a few days)—the risk of inhaling harmful emissions is greatly reduced.  Vulnerable groups such as pregnant women, children and seniors should consider finding somewhere else to stay for several days during and a few days following having their living spaces painted.

The EPA also warns against storing paint inside your home. Paint cans may release chemicals gases or fumes even if they’re closed, and so a basement or closet full of old paint cans is potentially dangerous.


*Parental occupational exposure to benzene and the risk of childhood and adolescent acute lymphoblastic leukaemia: a population-based study. Julia E Heck et al., BMJ Occupational and Environmental Medicine, 2019.



Journal Reference: McCanlies, E., et al. (2019). The CHARGE study: An assessment of parental occupational exposures and autism spectrum disorder.  Occupational and Environmental Medicine, British Medical Journal (BMJ). Study



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