HomeIs epoxy flooring safe to use?

Is epoxy flooring safe to use?

By Jack Josephsen

While my strong ties with two-pack epoxy flooring has a lot to do with performance, I was definitely drawn to it by the health and safety aspect as well. Right at the start of my epoxy flooring career, I got sensitised to MDIs used in polyurethanes and from that moment I vowed to stay away from “nasties” as much as possible.

Besides MDIs, the thing I most wanted to get rid of was solvent. As you’ll see below, there are other hazards to be found in epoxy flooring formulations, however solvents were front of the queue because I knew they didn’t have to be there and epoxies without solvents were very much a reality.

Why are solvents in epoxy flooring a safety issue?

The stench was a big enough turn off for me, but there was also the fact they’ve been known to cause acute (short term) effects such as:

  • Dermatitis and miscellaneous skin problems (drying, cracking, reddening or blistering).
  • Headaches.
  • Drowsiness.
  • Poor co-ordination.
  • Nausea.
  • Unconsciousness and even death (in extreme cases of high concentration).

And have a chronic (long term) impact on:

  • The brain and nervous system (including personality changes, memory loss, sleeping disorders, and irritability).
  • The skin.
  • The liver.
  • Blood production.
  • The kidneys.

Some installers may scoff at those concerns, while others believe they're safe with organic vapour masks (even though solvents are more than just an inhalation issue). You can’t work in full body suits, so what do you do? Once again, the macho men say, “I'm tough, she'll be right”. Well, the cemeteries are full of macho men, and you shouldn’t have to sacrifice your health for work.

Also, it might not concern you, but what about the people who live or work around your epoxy flooring projects? In my humble opinion, if you’re working indoors with solvent-borne epoxy flooring products then you’re downright negligent. One horrific story told to me by a father always springs to mind here. His son was mixing a solvent-borne coating in a 20-litre bucket when the vapour tracked through the building and was ignited by a cigarette. The outcome was third degree burns and other life-changing injuries.

The risks are not only during application or for seven days after either. Solvents can be slowly released for years and contribute to medical conditions such as Sick Building Syndrome. This illness has emerged on the back of modern practices that aim to conserve energy by sealing up buildings as much as possible. As a result, natural ventilation suffers and when combined with the release of chemicals in modern materials creates a dangerously low quality of air.

I stumbled across an article published in The Australian Financial Review a few years ago that gave a glimpse into this problem. It claimed people spent 90% of their time indoors, in buildings that “are two to three times more concentrated [with pollutants] than outside”.

It also presented an example of “a woman who moved into a mass-produced project home built with materials that give off significant levels of formaldehyde (a VOC). After living in the house for 6 months, the woman went to a house-warming party in an identical but brand-new home in the neighbourhood. On immediate contact with the powerful levels of formaldehyde in the new house, she collapsed. What happened was that her body had become over-sensitised to the chemical through exposure to it in her own home”.

The article concluded by quoting, “The full impact of poor indoor air quality has yet to be recognised...indoor air quality is the most serious environmental issue that has not been addressed in this country”.

With solvents playing a starring role in these dramas, it seems the easy fix for everyone is to at least minimise the amount being used in the first place.

Is solvent-free epoxy flooring completely safe?

While many installers don’t give a second thought to the safety issues listed above, I’ve seen some who are completely the opposite. They’re over the odours, rashes and dizzy spells and don’t want to deal with it anymore. As a manufacturer of solventless epoxy flooring, I regularly get asked by those looking for less hazardous options if solventless means they’re completely free from danger.

The response to that question is a firm no! While being solvent-free removes an obvious hazard, there are other ingredients that can pose health and safety risks and installers should be very careful not to fall into the trap of thinking solvent-free is automatically risk-free.

The types of ingredients that can still cause harm include:

  • Irritants, corrosives and sensitisers – Irritants and corrosives both cause damage to the skin, the difference being the reaction to an irritant is reversible. A sensitiser describes any material that has very little effect initially, however on repeated exposure becomes more and more damaging. The target for all three is mainly the skin and eyes, however they can also damage the respiratory tract if inhaled.

  • Toxins – Any material that has an adverse effect on the normal function of the body can be classified as toxic. With that in mind, it can be said that all epoxy flooring would be toxic if you drank enough of it, and it's for that reason you’ve got be wary of non-toxic claims. Yes, if kept away from children and used in the correct manner the likelihood of someone drinking enough to cause harm is very small, however claims of being non-toxic border on irresponsible in my opinion.

    The main danger with toxicity is through exposure routes other than the mouth, i.e. via breathing and skin absorption. Solvents represent the major concern in this department, however with solventless epoxy flooring there are still many ingredients classified as at least harmful (less severe than toxic) by inhalation or skin contact so always be sure to read the Safety Data Sheet.
  • Carcinogens – There’s much uncertainty and debate surrounding many manufacturing materials and whether or not they cause cancer, however there are confirmed substances still used by some epoxy flooring manufacturers. Add to that list so-called “probable” carcinogens like epichlorohydrin (present in cheap epoxies), lead pigments and toluene di-isocyanate (polyurethanes), and a potential hazard starts to take shape.

To finish what is a brief discussion on a major topic far beyond the scope of this article, it’s worth emphasising that while there’s no doubt using solventless epoxy flooring technology is a big step toward better and safer flooring practices, there are still some dangers installers must be aware of. 

A collection of hazchem labels that are applicable to epoxy flooring, including corrosive, flammable and toxic. A photo of sensitised skin on the foot of an installer. A collection of personal protective equipment that should be worn by installers when working with epoxy flooring.

This information has been adapted from our epoxy handbook - “Finally, real answers for real contractors – Industrial Flooring”.
Copies are available on the Support page.

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