Our lungs are designed to help filter and get rid of harmful material like dust particles from our system – but when it comes to activities like drywall sanding and joint taping, and the excessive amounts of dust generated, it becomes too much for our lungs to cope with. Workers in the construction business and homeowners exposed to the dust cloud by-products of a home remodeling project may be inhaling harmful inorganic dusts like silica, asbestos, gypsum and/or even sulfur in some imported materials. Short-term exposure can cause discomfort, irritated and watery eyes, scratchy, sore throats and coughing, whilst long-term exposure can lead to potentially irreversible damage to your health.
Drywall itself is safe enough to use, but sanding and joint taping are a different matter. To break down how inhaling excessive amounts of drywall dust without the proper protection is a very bad idea, let’s take a look at the types of conditions it may lead to if care is not taken.
According to the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OHSA), up to 2.3 million people in the USA are exposed to silica at work. Crystalline silica particles are described as ‘respirable’ – nearly 100 times smaller than particles of sand and very easily breathable, this by-product of drywall sanding can be responsible for a range of diseases, including silicosis, a lung disease which may be life-threatening and is incurable. Silica particles, once they’ve entered the lungs, generate scar tissue, which reduces the lung’s elasticity and makes it difficult for them to draw in oxygen. This can result in anything from shortness of breath to, at later stages, acute chest pains and respiratory failure.
Silicosis also affects the immune system, making you even more susceptible to disease and infection, including lung infections like tuberculosis. Lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and kidney disease are also potential conditions individuals may develop due to excessive and long-term exposure to silica.
Prior to being identified as a dangerous material, asbestos was broadly used in many industrial applications including ship-building and producing heat-resistant construction materials, insulation and fireproofing for homes and commercial spaces. The extremely deadly effects of asbestos have since been exposed and the material removed from industrial and commercial use, but if you’re working with old drywall you may still be exposed to drywall dust bearing these scent- and tasteless fibers, which may take decades to show symptoms, but can manifest as anything from less life-threatening diseases as asbestosis and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), to more life-threatening conditions like lung cancer and peritoneal mesothelioma. Asbestos remains the biggest cause of occupational cancer to this day, and it’s highly dangerous at any level of exposure to the substance, particularly so for workers handling drywall containing the material and even workers who happen to be nearby. Talc, a mineral made up of magnesium, silicon and oxygen, contains asbestos in its natural form.
A mineral consisting of calcium sulfate, gypsum can cause irritation to your eyes, nose, skin and upper respiratory system if consumed improperly. If you’re sanding drywall and find yourself coughing and sneezing, or experiencing nosebleeds and a runny nose (a condition called rhinorrhea), chances are this is a symptom of gypsum inhalation.
Clearly, inhaling drywall dust is a recipe for disaster toward your health and wellbeing, not just for construction workers constantly exposed to the materials but to individuals around the area as well, including homeowners involved in the construction and renovation processes. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) specifies Permissible Exposure Limits (PELs) for worker safety, but findings by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) indicate that typical worker exposure can be up to ten times this limit.
To minimize the risks, it is important to invest in proper protective gear as well as adapt sanding techniques to those healthier for you in the long-run. NIOSH certified N95 masks are far better equipped than cheap and ineffectual filter masks, since they’re designed to block up to 95 percent of airborne particles, so long as you follow the directions and use them correctly. In fact, this is another facet of the argument – a lot of the time protective gear is casually and improperly used, rendering them obsolete. Educate yourself on the most effective ways to use your protective gear, to make the most out of them and to keep yourself safe from potentially life-threatening health risks. Another highly effective option is to opt for full or half face silicone respiratory masks, with replaceable filters, to keep the amount of silica you’re exposed to down to a benign degree.
The equipment you use for sanding also comes into play. If not properly contained, drywall dust can get everywhere – and we mean everywhere. The fine particles can seep into the very corners of your home, difficult to sweep out of nooks and crannies. The best way to go about it is to try and keep down the amount of drywall dust generated in the first place. Sanders with vacuum attachments or shop vacuums (also known as wet/dry vacuums) can help suck up the drywall dust generated from sanding before it gets a chance to get everywhere and on everything. Depending on the machine you use, you can reduce airborne drywall dust by anywhere from 80 to 90 percent.
We also recommend against hand sanding, because this method creates clouds of drywall dust and requires you to be quite close to the source of it – if you’re hand sanding, make sure you’re wearing a heavy-duty mask, have a powerful vacuum on hand with removeable filters to catch the particles so your motor doesn’t end up jamming, and/or have placed a box fan at a nearby open window to expel some of the dust.
Another option is wet sanding. A damp drywall sponge can be used to sand down drywall, capturing the dust on the sponge. What isn’t captured by the sponge falls to the ground, heavy with the moisture of the sponge, and is easier to collect than if it were to be airborne.