Sorry for the somewhat clickbait-y title, but it’s actually a true story. Ahem. Allow me to clarify: When I was 15, I had a part-time job stripping wood. Doesn’t sound much better, I know… hehe. Okay, I’ll level with you: first of all I’m male, and I used to work for a small furniture shop stripping varnish from antique furniture as the first part of the refinishing process. And let me tell you, I’m a lot worse for wear because of it. Chemicals used in varnish removal (and the varnish itself) are extremely harmful. This toxic exposure I experienced as a teenager had a negative lifetime impact on my health, and even some immediate effects, all of which I’d like to get into.
Stripping Without a License
When you’re 15 (and a stripper), you tend to think you’re invincible. Apparently, my boss (at the furniture shop) and my Dad thought so as well, because I wasn’t given proper protection for the work I was doing. I was working “under the table” anyway, because you’re not actually supposed to work without some sort of special license in MD until you’re 16. So regulations didn’t really apply.
I think I was paid like $8 an hour or something like that, which seemed pretty good at the time (c. 1997) compared to minimum wage ($4.50/hour) at McDonald’s. The price I paid in lost health far exceeded the money I earned as a stripper.
From day 1, I had some inkling that the chemicals I was using were not so great for my health. The stuff smelled like minty nail polish death. Once in awhile, it would splash onto my skin and it burned so bad, being an incredibly caustic chemical. I would just “flush” my skin with water and keep going. But man, if it didn’t hurt!
To be fair, I was given:
- safety goggles
- one of those N95 masks (not nearly enough to protect me)
- and like a rubber apron or something for protection.
It definitely wasn’t enough. I probably should have had something like this:
Simple enough, it’s a 3M Half Facepiece Reusable Respirator 6300. I would need to combine this with 2 of the highest-level 3M organic vapor/acid cartridges (6003) to stop these harmful VOCs from getting into my respiratory tract:
How to Strip
The basic procedure for removing varnish by hand from wood furniture is:
- Dip a paint brush in some nasty varnish remover
- “Paint” these toxic chemicals onto all surfaces of the chair, desk, or table you’re working on
- Wait about 3 minutes for the chemicals to act and dissolve varnish
- Start scrubbing off gunk with steel wool
- Apply acetone and remove remaining residue with sandpaper and cloth
- Rinse and repeat, until you’re down to bare wood, or you pass out from the fumes and heat
It’s not unlike removing paint, or even removing nail polish from your own fingernails. And sadly, the compounds they use for removal are a lot like those nasty nail polish/paint removers, on steroids. I’ll get into this briefly below.
I don’t recall my initial symptoms at the time, but I can say with some certainty that being in the shop for 4 hours at a time would always give me some degree of lightheadedness. The most interesting connection I made to my health was that I started to get tendonitis, whereas I’d never experienced that in any other circumstance. I believe my immune system was being affected, potentially by aldehydes and other liver-compromising compounds, leading to cramping and muscle weakness. This exposure combined with the repetitive motion of scrubbing the furniture (but not the motion itself, because that never bothered me in the absence of these chemicals) ultimately led to the small muscles in my hand becoming extremely inflamed.
Because of my experience and subsequent research, I truly believe there are usually environmental cofactors involved in disorders involving the small muscles, such as carpal tunnel syndrome. Often, people like to say that our bodies were never meant to do such “fine” movements like typing and scrubbing that occurs in modern life. I do not agree with this assumption at all. We are getting inflammation in our joints and tendons from these movements only in the presence of toxic chemicals in our food and environment, with a touch of poor nutrition in the mix.
Chemicals in Industrial Varnish Remover
While I can’t tell you the exact brand, and perhaps not even the correct family of the chemicals I was using, I can say that I’m 100% sure they were emitting large amounts of VOCs, and relating the smell to a later chemical exposure in a food truck manufacturing shop, I’ve determined there was probably some formaldehyde involved. I’ve covered the dangers of formaldehyde in previous posts. Here is an MSDS (material safety data sheet) for a “semi-paste” furniture stripping compound similar to what I was probably using.
Notice the hazard statements:
- Skin irritation (Category 2), H315
- Eye irritation (Category 2A), H319
- Carcinogenicity (Category 2). H351
- Single target organ toxicity – single exposure (Category 3)
- Respiratory System, Central Nervous System, H335, H336
- Specific target organ toxicity – repeated exposure, Inhalation (Category 2), Central Nervous System, H373
So I’m having fun with complications I’m sure related to all of that since I’ve had both single and repeated exposures of inhalation to this type of chemical. Since I have the genetic inability to remove aldehydes effectively, a disorder covered in the “Formalities of Formaldehyde” article linked above, this has made the complications I’ve experienced manifold. Simply put, some people are much more susceptible to toxic compounds.
Later Exposures I Experienced
There have been some times in the past two years I’ve smelled chemicals similar to what I smelled in the wood shop where I once stripped so insouciantly. A couple of years ago, on vacation in Virginia Beach, I visited a food-truck manufacturing and reconditioning shop in the dead of winter. When I entered the shop, I smelled that very familiar “minty” smell, and immediately began to become lightheaded. In the interest of politeness, I didn’t mention it, and in full winter garb, I endured the exposure.
This was not a good idea. I should have followed my instincts and run screaming.
The symptoms were not too bad that night, but I started to notice belabored breathing on the long drive home from my trip. The compound had remained on my heavy winter jacket, and the clothing of the passengers that had been in the shop with me. On the way to where we were staying, this toxic chemical quickly impregnated the vents of my vehicle. Substances like this are very “sticky,” easily gassing off into the air and onto cloth or surfaces nearby. It takes some time in the open air and the sun for the smell to “gas off.”
You can remove aldehydes from cloth very easily by simply washing in organic detergent and hydrogen peroxide, but it has to be a washable material. Obviously, I couldn’t throw my car in the washing machine, so I had to leave the doors open all day every day for a week with the vents on full blast (all the while borrowing another person’ car, because I couldn’t stand driving in mine) until the smell dissipated. Ultimately, the noxious fumes dissipated, because oxygen always degrades aldehydes over time, and I reclaimed my vehicle.
Now, I smell similar compounds, most likely acetaldehyde, pretty much everywhere I go, on new clothes and big box items. Usually when they’re present my throat gets sore/raspy first and foremost before the neurological symptoms, digestive distress, and muscle weakness kick in. They use these compounds to disinfect whenever possible, because they’re extremely harmful to anything living, thus killing all those “nasty germs” everyone hates (in their ignorance). You can also find it in glues, detergents, perfumes/colognes, and smoke.
Housing Construction Is as Bad as Varnish Remover
I had a similar exposure while I was exiled from my home due to mold overgrowth in the humid summer of 2015. While away, I stayed at my aunt’s house for two nights. Her house had had a new addition in the basement after a leak of its own a year previous, with unsafe construction materials still offgassing. The first night, I barely smelled it all the way up on the second floor, but experienced accelerated heartbeat and overactive bowels through the night.
The next night, we had opened up the vents to try and get some cool air in there, and to my dismay, I could actually smell the sickly sweet scent of aldehydes and other new construction chemicals permeating the whole floor where I was sleeping. Having nowhere else to go, I endured a night of asthma-like inability to breathe, and even began to semi-hallucinate as I fell asleep for a few minutes at a time. Near the break of dawn, I finally worked out a way to to get a half hour of hallucination-free sleep by laying on a dresser with my head basically out the window.
A year later, and I’ve not been able to go into their house for more than a minute at a time ever since.
How This Applies to You
- Don’t go into furniture or vehicle manufacturing workshops without adequate protection (which is rarely available, so don’t go in at all)
- New cars and RVs are particularly rich with these chemicals—avoid if possible
- Don’t spend too much time in houses with new construction
- Don’t use epoxies/glues inside your home (or at all), as most of them contain formaldehyde and other toxic chemicals
- Don’t get manicure/pedicures (mani-pedis), which expose you to formaldehyde and other toxic chemicals
- Don’t use nail polish remover in your own house (or anyone’s house for that matter)
- If you must use any glues or toxic compounds, be sure to use them in a well-ventilated area or outdoors
Though you won’t come across the particular chemical I was affected by in furniture that’s been recently refinished, you will come across very similar compounds once in awhile in everyday life, like nail polish remover and paint removal solutions. Also, if you’ve recently had a piece of furniture redone, you might be dealing with varnish that emits a great amount of VOCs (volatile organic compounds). Here is an article that describes the many perils of working in a wood shop.
So, do everything you can to avoid areas where chemicals like these are being used. Also, be discerning enough to not introduce them into your household, where you will be exposed to them around the clock once they’re deployed. If they have been deployed, remove the source immediately, ventilate the space as much as possible, and take steps to purify the air. Even if you don’t have a genetic disorder that makes it difficult for you to process them, these chemicals will ultimately stress your system in subtle ways, and may even lead to cancer. You might be none the wiser if you can’t detect them.
Photo paint stripping from degamba.com.