The tale of milk and paint

Health and Safety

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I have always wondered why painters would ask for milk as part of their lunch during their painting activity. It seems this practice of painters taking milk to alleviate throat and lung irritation due to exposure to fumes is something a culture that has been practiced for decades in South Africa. Paints are used by the construction sector for various reasons.

Paint is used to protect various structures, waterproofing and protection from other adverse weather effects. During its application, users are exposed to its harmful effects through inhalation of its fumes. The lungs are the mostly affected as the route of explore is through inhalation. We love the warmth that painted structures offers us and the aesthetic effect it leaves behind to beautify our surroundings.


There’s a variety of paints used across the construction sector and their effects will depend on their chemical composition. They range from oil-based which irritate the skin and solvent based with more hazardous effects.

Paint is classified as one of hazardous chemical substances as it contains a cocktail of chemicals. As required by Hazardous Chemicals Substances Regulations from the OHS act, Materials Safety Data Sheet should be supplied by manufacturers to guide users in the proper handling and the use of such chemicals. Paint is one them.


  • Irritation of the eyes, nose, throat or and/or respiratory tract.
  • Visual disturbances.
  • Headaches.
  • Loss of coordination.
  • Nausea.
  • Light-headedness.
  • Dizziness.
  • Allergic skin reaction.


Depending on concentrations and the length of exposure time, chemical substances found in paint can cause the following:

  • Cancers,
  • Damage to the brain


Any use of hazardous chemical substances in South Africa, Occupational Health and Safety Act mandates all manufacturers to supply users with a Material Safety Data Sheet to provide information. Employers need to know the nature and dangers of substances their employees use daily. MSDS will contain info on the substance and usually cover the following:

  • Identification of the substance/mixture and of the company/undertaking
  • Hazards identification
  • Composition/information on ingredients
  • First aid measures
  • Accidental release measure
  • Handling and storage


Over the years, both construction workers and company owners alike, believed that drinking milk is a remedy and often taken after exposure to paint fumes.  This practice has gone on for decades, mainly in the informal construction industry.

According to an article on Health24, “although milk would make the throat feel better after working with paint, it doesn’t make any difference in terms of fume exposure. Milk will only help with absorbing odours released by paint, but it will not prevent or protect employees from inhaling those fumes.” In conclusion, provision of training and information about hazards attached to employees’ activities remains the responsibility of the employer. This also includes the provision and maintenance of appropriate Personal Protective Clothing/Equipment (PPE).

Written by Juliet Kekana – Managing Director – De-novo HSE Training and Consulting

For more information on health and safety services, visit our website

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Issue 410


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