Q: I do drywall for a living as I get contracted out to fix peoples walls, fix up buildings, help in building renovation, sanding joint compounds, you get the idea. I have worked with drywall every day for nearly 15 years as a tradesman. Of course it is messy and I’m often covered in drywall after a long days work. I want to know is the drywall dust toxic? When I grew up people didn’t care so much about their health but I’m starting to feel the effects of working a hands on job. I want to know if I should be taking precautions when doing my job. Thanks. – H
A: H., thank you for your question! Our first wet dry vacuum was actually intended for working with drywall, so we have done quite a bit of research on its properties.
To answer your question in short: drywall dust is not toxic to the body in smaller amounts. This means it will not cause any long-term diseases. However, it can irritate parts of the body, like the eyes and throat. This is because it is made of a chemical known as gypsum (calcium sulfate dihydrate).
Fast Facts About Gypsum
- Gypsum is generally non-flammable
- It is not hazardous to the skin (with the exception of allergic reactions)
- Gypsum will irritate your eyes, nose, mouth, and throat for a short period of time
- It can affect the lungs over a lifetime of work without a dust mask
- Gypsum is non-reactive with water
- It is generally non-reactive with the human body
Looking at the atomic structure of gypsum, the main component of drywall dust, we learn a few things:
The sulfur compound is very stable; yet it is a prime nucleophile. With the oxygen on the water molecules (H2O) creating a partial positive charge on the hydrogen (H), the negatively charged oxygen (O-) on the sulfur compound will liberate hydrogen atoms from the water. This makes the compound slightly basic on the pH scale.
This leaves the pH of the compound at approximately 7.7 pH. This is close to the pH of pool water (~7.4), so it will probably have the same effect on your eyes as chlorine does when you go swimming – it irritates the eyes, but only for a short period of time. This is a fairly neutral pH.
Because it is so stable, it does not pose a long-term threat to the body.
Effects On The Body
We have already established that the compounds in drywall are generally not dangerous to your body. Two things can make it irritate your eyes, nose, and throat though:
First, drywall dust is very fine – about 10 microns, or micrometers, in diameter. To give you an idea of how small that is, the diameter of the average human hair is about 75 microns. Drywall dust particles are extremely small and can easily travel through the airways. In the short-term it will just irritate your eyes, nose, and throat; however, if you never use a dust mask or respirator the repeated irritation can cause more long-term asthma like symptoms; however, if you have always worn a dust mask, chances are you will be fine.
Second, people wonder about silica. We hear about silica often in concrete – so do we need to be concerned with drywall? Silica, a dangerous substance, has historically been found in drywall. Yet, in recent years suppliers have offered silica free compounds. The drywall you purchase from your supplier likely does not contain silica. We do caution you to check your supplies to ensure you are using a silica-free compound.
Should You Worry?
Unless you have worked for a long time without a mask or respirator, you shouldn’t worry. It may be advisable to have a checkup by your physician if you experience asthma-like conditions or experience a difficult time breathing. In drywall dust format, the gypsum is too large to get down into the lungs and sediment there. However. you should still take precautions. This includes proper Personal Protection Equipment and a dust control system.
What Can I Use For Dust Control?
We have a line of products to control dust when working with drywall.
Sanding: Our vacuum powered Turbo Drywall Sander allows you to sand drywall dust-free.
We recommend our Wet+Dry Vacuum – our original drywall vacuum – which is specifically designed to capture, and contain, fine dust such as drywall dust. It has a great seal and filters out fine dust without the cost of a HEPA vacuum.
Thank you for your question!