Are Drywalls Toxic and Bad for the Environment? [Answered]


Is drywall toxic?

In a 1999 health report, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) discovered that workers who sand drywall joint compounds were often exposed to high concentrations of dust.

Drywall compound contains ingredients such as talc, calcite, mica, gypsum and silica, which are considered harmful when inhaled as dust. The report revealed that workers often inhaled the silica dust from the compound. Silica dust is known to cause serious health risks when inhaled in large amounts. Ingredients from the compound were responsible for the irritation workers felt in their eyes, noses, throats and respiratory tracts.

Breathing the dust from drywall joint compounds may cause serious health complications.

For instance, it can lead to breathing difficulties, coughing, phlegm production and throat irritation. Sadly, it is even worse for smokers or workers with respiratory problems —the compounds may worsen their health conditions. What’s more, workers who inhale silica face an increased chance of having silicosis and lung cancer.

Is Drywall Toxic for Babies?

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Your baby ate drywall and you’re freaking out! Will it harm your baby? Is it something you should be worried about? What should you do?!

No, drywall won’t harm your baby. However, it’s normal for you to feel worried about the things your baby eats (especially if it isn’t baby food).

Drywalls are made from a substance known as gypsum. According to the Gypsum Product Development Association, gypsum is a non-hazardous, non-toxic, inherently safe material.

Products made from gypsum like drywalls are not classified as hazardous according to EU CLP regulations. Gypsum is used as an additive in foods like floor, white bread, blue cheese and ice cream.

The US Food and Drug Administration approves its use in cosmetics, drugs, toothpaste and orthopaedic casts. In its natural form, gardeners add it to the soil to improve the soil’s water-retaining abilities.

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While drywall is considered non-toxic, its dust can harm your baby. Drywall dust contains silica which is responsible for eye, nose and throat irritation. When inhaled in huge amounts, it may cause coughing and breathing difficulties for the baby.

Also, if your baby consumes drywall in its raw form—which contains unprocessed gypsum—it may cause nosebleeds, coughing and sneezing. Gypsum can also block your baby’s gastrointestinal tract. Thankfully, the gypsum in drywalls are manufactured under strict quality control measures and do not pose any risks.

Health Implications of Dust from Sanding Drywalls

After carrying out a Health Hazard Evaluation, the NIOSH found that those who sand drywalls were exposed to a lot of dust.

According to the report, the amount was 10 times greater than the approved limit of 15 mg/m3 for the total dust set by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Also, the NIOSH discovered that the OSHA permissible exposure limit (PEL) for respirable dust (5 mg/m3) (the amount of dust that can enter the lungs), was exceeded during this time.

Initially, it was unclear why some workers were having trouble breathing after sanding drywall. But after studying five manufacturer material safety data sheets, what the NIOSH experts found was shocking. The manufacturer had warned the workers to avoid generating dust and use respiratory protection when dry sanding.

Of the five sheets examined, four advised construction workers to use wet sanding whenever possible. The fifth recommended dry sanding in areas with plenty of air to reduce exposure to dust. However, these guidelines were often ignored. Workers avoided wet sanding because of its slow drying time and finish texture. When they wore respiratory protection, they wore it incorrectly. Worse, some had little or no training on how to use their protective gears or how to select the right size.

How to Minimize Drywall Sanding Dust

You can minimize the drywall sanding dust by using vacuum systems and the pole-standing method. Alternatively, you can use greener wall options.

1. Use Vacuum Systems

Inhaling the dust from drywall sanding can cause serious health complications, especially if it contains silica.

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If you constantly inhale silica when sanding, you have a higher chance of getting lung cancer. But with several lightweight systems designed to control drywall sanding dust, this can be avoided. These systems use portable vacuums that capture and remove the dust before a sander is exposed to it. Furthermore, when the engineers at NIOSH tested five of these systems in 1994, they found out that it reduced dust exposures by 80% to 97%.

Four of the five reduced workers’ exposure to dust by nearly 95%. Today, these control systems are available in numbers. Each of them has special, appealing features designed to meet the needs of professional drywall sanders or DIY folks.

Besides, there are other benefits you can get from using these vacuum sanding systems. For instance

  • Since they collect the dust from sanding, they guarantee a tidier and much cleaner work area during and after sanding
  • They ensure a clean working environment, meaning your nose, eyes and throat will feel less irritated when drywall sanding. In addition, you’ll use respiratory protection less often.
  • These machines will make your work more comfortable. The air in your work area will be less suffocating than before.
  • Overall, these systems will help you and every other worker in the workplace, including the owner and subcontractor, save costs. Some of these sanding costs may arise from repairing or repainting stained floors or carpets.

2. Pole-Standing

Sanding by hand brings you closer to the wall surface, thereby increasing your chances of inhaling the dust and falling sick. If there are no vacuum systems available, the NIOSH recommends switching from hand-sanding to pole-standing.

According to the NIOSH, this will reduce the chances of inhaling harmful dust particles. Further, this will increase the space between you and the sanding surface, which in turn reduces the amount of dust close to your mouth and nose.

3. Environmentally-Friendly Alternatives to Drywalls

Even though drywall is considered a non-harmful material, during installation, they often generate silica dust, which can irritate the nose, eyes and throat. Silica can clog the respiratory tracts and cause asthma attacks, while huge deposits in the lungs can cause silicosis and lung cancer.

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Aside from these, drywall lacks texture and character, are hard to mould, and is damaged easily.

Fortunately, there are better, friendlier and greener alternatives to traditional drywall that you can use to create interior walls. Let’s take a look.

  1. True plaster: Before drywall was invented most homeowners used plasters to finish their walls. Plaster is a very clean and green material. However, unlike drywall, it is labour intensive to install. Installation is often done by hand by skilled installers.
  1. Wood panelling: If you can afford this, they are a brilliant choice compared to drywall. Though some are less expensive (thin panels) than hardwood boards. Overall, wood boards are very beautiful.

However, before you buy one, be sure to check that it is sustainable, that is, it’s eco-friendly and has zero impact on the environment.

Another thing to consider is the air seal. Panelling could result in unwanted air leaks if the air sealing isn’t considered.

Should I Replace My Mouldy Drywall?

While drywall is made of some pretty sturdy material, it can get damaged if it’s exposed to water for too long. If the moisture damage isn’t treated quickly, it could ruin the strength of the wall and leave it vulnerable to mould attack.

Mould produces allergens (substances that can trigger allergic reactions), irritants and toxic substances. If inhaled or touched, mould can cause sneezing, runny nose, red-eye, skin rash, and even asthma attacks.

If you notice mould growing on your drywall, replace the wall immediately. Mould doesn’t always show visible signs of growth, as a result, it’s hard to tell how much has spread on your wall. Therefore, we advise that you replace the entire drywall or most of it.