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Chen et al report irritant symptoms experienced by dockyard painters in both Scotland and China.1 In 1985, I reported2 on painters involved in submarine refit work in one of Her Majesty's dockyards in England. I too found a high prevalence of symptoms of irritation. However, and possibly of more concern, the painters in my study also reported narcotic symptoms. In 106 painters, 74 (70%) reported episodes of light headedness. Some 28 (26%) reported that, on occasion, this had led them to stop painting and seek fresh air. A solvent taste in the mouth was reported by 75 (71%). Some reported that their partners complained of a solvent smell to their breath persisting into the evening after a day shift.
The full face air fed masks then meant to be in use as respiratory protective equipment were considered to be bulky, uncomfortable, and to restrict vision. They were almost universally disliked; instead, some painters preferred to wear half face masks and tolerate eye irritation from the paint vapours, and for “touch ups” sometimes used no respiratory protective equipment.
The messages were that painters, and perhaps their supervisors as well, needed to be reminded of the importance of narcotic symptoms; if a less potentially toxic paint system could not be found, additional consideration needed to be paid to ventilation and a search made for a more comfortable air fed mask.
My study predated both Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations (COSHH)3 and Personal Protective Equipment at Work Regulations (PPE)4: one might have hoped that their principles and implementation would have led to fewer irritant symptoms than still apparently being experienced by the workers in the study of Chen et al. Finally, as well as the points in their paper, I would suggest occupational physicians with painters in their care remain vigilant for narcotic symptoms. There seems to remain scope for improved control.