It’s no secret that some screen printing chemicals are hazardous to your health. Safer alternatives are out there. If you’re looking for chemicals that are kind to your body and the environment but still get the job done, look no further. ER nurse and screen printer Charlie Vueleman walks through the hazards of screen printing chemicals and offers tips to keep your shop safe and your body healthy.
WHY DOES IT MATTER IF SOME CHEMICALS ARE HAZARDOUS?
Charlie owned his own screen printing shop before becoming an ER nurse. He started working to help shops automate their processes and take their production to the next level. As an RN, Charlie has seen some really gnarly stuff, so health-related issues are always on his mind. Since he’s also a screen printer, he takes into account what printers breathe in and what comes in contact with their skin. Those two in particular made him wonder how screen printing chemicals affect our bodies.
Researching some of the ingredients in common shop chemicals—including screen opener and spray tack—will lead you down a rabbit hole filled with scientific words and pathophysiology that might make your head spin.
Think about it though: every day, you’re exposed to ink degraders and washes, cured ink fumes, acidic emulsion removers and haze removers, and who knows what else. Charlie hopes to educate and empower printers to make healthy chemical choices and help create conversation around the topic of improved screen printing health.
HOW CHEMICALS AFFECT YOUR HEALTH
Think back to high school chemistry class. When you were working with chemicals of any kind, your teacher probably made you wear goggles and gloves. He or she probably also stressed that you shouldn’t breathe the chemicals in, because they might be harmful. Screen printing chemicals are pretty much the same. They can harm the respiratory system and cause issues when they come in contact with your skin.
Let’s talk about the respiratory system for a minute. Our respiratory system is a complex one, with lots of safeguards to keep us from getting sick. We breathe in air through our nostrils and can also take in air through our mouth. The nose moisturizes the air and cleans it as it passes through our sinuses down into our lungs. When we breathe through our mouth, the air doesn’t go through “filters” like it does so in our noses. It’s just a straight shot to our lungs.
When you feel irritants in your lungs or upper airway, you cough to help clear all that out. When you get a respiratory infection, your lungs do all kinds of amazing things to keep that stuff moving out as your other systems kick in to help.
But what happens as you breathe in chemical fumes during the printing process? Initially, there is usually coughing and breath holding, but as you get accustomed to breathing those chemicals in, the urge to cough and hold your breath goes away. Because of this, those chemicals can find their way into your systems.
Our blood gets pumped through our heart and into our lungs anywhere from 60-100 times a minute. The blood picks up oxygen in the lungs before getting the final squeeze to push it throughout your body. Contaminants can get into the bloodstream.
Photo by Lee Stuart
Our skin protects us from contaminants in general, but absorption can happen. If you have a cut or scrape, you’re more exposed to the effects of everyday chemicals. Charlie has seen some pretty scary haze remover burns on the forearms of people washing out frames for reuse. Generally lumped into the same category as our skin, mucous membranes get exposed to irritants as well, like our nostrils and—even more frightening—our eyes. Imagining the splash-back of an acidic emulsion remover into your eyes doesn’t conjure happy images.
As our skin gets exposed to chemicals over and over, it experiences defatting or oil reduction in the exposed areas, as well as permanent changes due to corrosion of the cells at the site.
What does this mean? Whatever area of your skin is exposed to these chemicals can become very dry. While this isn’t a life-threatening issue, it is very annoying and can lead to more damaging consequences later. Your skin can also crack and redden, causing further irritation. Chemicals that enter your body through your skin can cause damage to your internal organs in the long run.
So what do you do? Stop producing? Live in fear? Go hide in your office and pretend you didn’t read this article? Don’t worry: Charlie’s got you covered.
To specifically target some of the things mentioned earlier in this article, let’s talk about alternatives, and get tactical about what you can do.
Photo by Golden Press Studio
Water-based adhesive is a viable alternative to spray adhesives. It’s a liquid glue that you drizzle onto a platen and spread it around with a platen card. Unlike spray tack, it doesn’t get everywhere (your press, floor, skin, lungs). It’s safer because you have more control over it, yet it’s just as effective, if not more effective, as spray tack.
To activate the water-based adhesive, spread a generous amount onto the platen. Give it a touch of heat to make it as sticky as possible. The process may take a bit longer initially, but this adhesive lasts longer than a spray will, and it’s less expensive. It’s a win-win-win situation — better for your body while saving you money.
SPRAY OPENER REPLACEMENT
Spray opener might solve problems quickly, but it’s harmful to your health and the environment.
You can use other products to get the job done just as well.
When it comes to screen and squeegee cleanup, use a press wash. Press washes are just as effective as screen openers, and their liquid nature allows them to be used in basic pump-to-cloth systems, ketchup style squirt bottles, recirculating systems, etc. The chemicals are effective, without being pressurized and toxic to you.
If you get any ink on your skin, you can remove it with baby wipes or nail brushes with pumice soap. It may take longer, but it’s worth it. They are way better than just taking a little ‘hit’ of screen opener to remedy the problem.
OTHER CLEANUP CHEMICALS
For every chemical, there’s a friendlier solution. You need the best of both worlds: something friendly for your health and the environment that works at industrial strength. Sgreen® Eco-Friendlier™ chemicals are formulated with citrus and iodine, performing better than other harmful chemicals while going easy on the environment and your health.
Whether you’re looking for a safe emulsion stripper, dehazer, or ink degrader, Sgreen® has it all. Disposing of these chemicals is also helpful to you and the environment. Get a washout booth and filtration system—or create your own—to dispose of them properly and without worry.
Photo by Symettree
BEST PRACTICES FOR A HAZARD-FREE SHOP
Purchasing friendly screen printing chemicals is only half the battle. To reduce the chance of harming your body, you need to practice safe methods for running your shop.
DO YOUR RESEARCH
Many screen printing chemicals are harmful. You don’t have to take our word for it. Do your own research to make sure you know what you’re buying and potentially putting in your body. Labels like “industrial” probably aren’t going to be safe for your lungs or skin.
Just because a product advertises that it’s friendly to your health doesn’t mean it is. A little leaf icon at the bottom of an aerosol can doesn’t guarantee anything. You have to really dig into the product, and the manufacturer, to see just what their ingredients and stance on environmentally friendly chemistry really means. Don’t believe the hype and label. Find out for sure. Your health depends on it.
GET SOME FRESH AIR
Everyone benefits from some fresh air now and then. When you’re working with chemicals, even eco-friendly ones, make sure you’re getting fresh air during your workday. One great way to make sure you get fresh air and take a break at the same time is to go on a walk. Treat yourself to a coffee or a snack. Take yourself to lunch. Your lungs—and brain—will thank you. If you can’t step away from your work to take a walk, open the doors and windows in your shop.
If you’re looking for something a little more industrial than an open window, install overhead exhaust or air return over your washout booths and ink cleaning stations. Removing any fumes and bad air from the workspace will help ensure that your processes can be as safe as possible.
Photo by Symettree
CREATE A CULTURE OF SAFETY
Get those goggles, hearing protection, disposable mouth/nasal masks, and forearm length disposable nitrile gloves. It might look funny, but it’s an investment in the long term. If you’re healthy, you can hustle harder.
Many screen printers use protective materials like masks, gloves, and goggles. Don’t be afraid to wear whatever you need to ensure your safety, both in the short term and the long term. If you have space, create a first-aid station with a sink and first-aid kit. Lastly, keep researching cleaner, healthier alternatives. Who knows, maybe you didn’t get the memo and there’s a better product out there.
Photo by Forte Clothing Company
Creating a hazard-free screen print shop is important for your process and your health. Continue to educate yourself on the hazards of the chemicals you use in your shop, and keep improving your processes to be as safe as possible. We want you around for a long time.