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The Dangers of Oil-Based Finish

Jun 15, 2022
Dark brown, light brown sport floor with blue lines and yellow wildcat logo in the middle

Safety is always a huge priority during and after any cleaning and maintenance task, including gym floor projects. Oil-based finishes are the most traditional finishes for wood sports floors and known to be extremely flammable, smelly, and dangerous if not properly stored or used. Continue reading to learn about the risks of using oil-based finishes and how waterbased finishes are a safer alternative.

Ingredients

Many oil-based finishes consist of petroleum distillates, varnish, and linseed oil. Each contribute to the danger of oil-based finish. Petroleum distillates are colorless, flammable liquids that cause mild gasoline or kerosene-like odor when the oil-based finish is applied. When petroleum distillates are inhaled, ingestion, or come in contact with the skin or eyes, it can irritate the eyes, nose, and throat and cause dizziness, drowsiness, headaches, nausea, and dry, cracked skin.

Varnish is the combination of resins, oils, and solvents that creates the transparent, hard, protective film on a wood floor after application. Many varnish products contain benzene, a highly flammable carcinogen. It also emits a strong odor with intense fumes that cause drowsiness, headaches, skin irritation, and dizziness. High exposure can even cause unconsciousness and respiratory distress.

Linseed oil is derived from dried seeds of flax plants and is a carrier in many oil-based products. When linseed oil is exposed to air, it combines with oxygen molecules that cause a chemical reaction, creating heat. The heat can cause a fire on a flammable object, like a rag, at as low as 120 degrees Fahrenheit without a spark.

Clean Up

When applying oil-based finishes, applicators like towels and rags are used and need to be disposed of properly after use. What can you do with the oil-soaked rags? Most would just assume they should be thrown out or stored away for the next job. This is when a finish project becomes more dangerous. If not properly disposed of or stored, as the rags begin to dry, the combination of heat, oxygen, and cloth can lead to spontaneous combustion and start a fire. As mentioned above, linseed oil can spark a fire just by being exposed to the air.

According to the National Fire Protection Association, an estimated 14,000 fires occur annually from spontaneous combustion. The garage/storage room was the most common area of origin (20% of fires) and oily rags were the most common items first ignited (35%). To prevent spontaneous combustion, oil-based finish rags must be stored and disposed of in a specific way.

  • Rags should not be in a pile
  • Keep them outside and away from building structures
  • Put dried rags in a metal container that is airlocked and sealed
  • Keep the containers in a cool place out of direct sunlight and away from heat sources

Removing oil-based finish or cleaning up spills requires a solvent, like mineral spirits that dissolve oil, and quick thinking to eliminate a potential fire hazard. There are many different methods and options, but they require additional supplies and steps to be successful.

Odor

Volatile organic compounds (VOC) are emitted into the air as soon as a container of oil-based finish is opened. They’re also emitted when the finish is applied and then again as it dries. As an oil-based finish dries, the solvents evaporate and release VOCs into the air, contributing to air pollution and a strong solvent smell.

VOCs are carbon-containing substances that become vapors or gases and assist with the application and drying of finish. When combined with other pollutants, smog can form and create even more environmental and health problems. VOCs contain the solvent odor that comes from oil-based finish. It is an unpleasant scent that could last for months or even years after finish application. It can be irritating for the people who smell the odor and inhaling fumes are harmful to human health. Prolonged exposure can a burning sensation, blurred vision, and a potential collapse.

Adequate ventilation in the work area is important to reduce oil-based finish odors and help with the indoor air quality. A good ventilation system is necessary to help with eliminating odors and improving air flow and air quality. The EPA reports that the indoor concentration of VOCs can be up to 1,000 times higher than what it would be outdoors, and low air quality can cause health problems.

Betco® Sports Zone® Emulsion® PRO+

The best defense against oil-based finishes and their hazards is to avoid them completely. Waterbased finishes are a safer alternative to oil-based finishes because water is used as the solvent as opposed to oil. Acrylic resin forms the bond between the wood and solids of the waterbased finish as it is applied. Then, the water evaporates from air exposure, leaving behind the resin and colorants on the wood surface. It also allows the finish to dry quickly and be ready to walk on in as little as 30 minutes. The ingredients are the clear difference between an oil-based finish and waterbased finish. Removing the petroleum distillates, varnish, and linseed oil of oil-based finish from the equation significantly creates a safer finish and reduces dangerous risks.

Emulsion PRO+ product

Emulsion® PRO+ is a one component, ambering commercial grade, self-leveling finish and sealer. It’s an excellent choice for professionals that are looking to make the transition from OMUs to waterbased because it’s an ambering finish that delivers a rich look of traditional oil but with all the advantages of a waterbased finish. Benefits of a waterbased finish include:

  • Non-flammability, which makes the clean-up process easier. Because water is the solvent, used rags can be piled together, stored together, and disposed of in a regular garbage can without the risk of sparking a fire. Used rags will not spontaneously combust.
  • If there is a spill, only soap and water are needed to clean up. Accidental drips of water from sweat or bottles will also not affect the project.
  • Low odor, which avoids issues associated with offensive, extreme fumes.
  • Low VOCs increase sustainability and improve air quality.

For those looking for a safer finish option, Emulsion PRO+ is the best choice for sport floors. For more information, click here. To speak with a Betco® representative, click here

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