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Lacquer – toxicity, side effects, diseases and environmental impacts

Wednesday, November 29, 2017 by

Lacquer is a solvent-based protective coating created by mixing nitrocellulose or resin in volatile solvents. The name of this opaque finish is derived from “lac”, the sticky, resinous substance excreted by the lac insect. Unlike shellac however, lacquer – that is, true or Asian lacquer – is actually harvested from the resin of the Chinese lacquer tree (Toxicodendron vernicifluum), a tree species endemic to China and the Indian subcontinent.

Apart from true lacquer, there are synthetic lacquers as well. These include nitrocellulose lacquer, acrylic lacquer and catalyzed lacquer. Nitrocellulose lacquer is inexpensive, dried quickly, but yellows with age; acrylic lacquer is much pricier but doesn’t yellow, making it more suitable for light-colored woods; catalyzed lacquer are easy to apply but provide better resistance to abrasion, chemicals, and water.

Regardless of the type of lacquer, these finishes are typically regarded as one of the best all-around finishes for wood. Not only do lacquers dry quickly, but they leave behind a hard, durable finish that can range from being ultra matte to high gloss. However, lacquer has been known to cause a wide range of health problems, making this a potentially hazardous and deadly substance.

List of known side effects

Lacquer can contain urethane, cyanide compounds and other chemicals that are dangerous when inhaled in great amounts. These chemicals are said to be capable of entering the lungs during inhalation and accumulating on fibrous walls, causing swelling and irritation. Additionally, they can lead to coughing, sore throat, breathing difficulties, vision problems and dizziness as well.

Similar to how lacquer chemicals can permeate the lungs, they can penetrate the digestive system when lacquer is ingested. Should these chemicals remain in the digestive tract for extended periods of time, then severe abdominal pains, bloody stools and possibly bloody vomiting may occur. The ingestion of lacquer can affect other parts of the body, such as the bladder, kidneys and nervous system. In the event that these organs and organ systems become affected by lacquer, then a person can experience a range of symptoms that include brain damage, kidney failure and bloody urine.

Additionally, lacquer is an eye and skin irritant. Short-term exposure will not cause skin problems, but prolonged exposure can cause skin to dry, crack, or become red and itchy, an indication of contact dermatitis. Eye contact, on the other hand, can result in stinging, tearing, swelling and even blindness.

Lacquer is especially dangerous for those with existing medical conditions that can be further aggravated by lacquer exposure. These include pre-existing lung, blood, heart and liver disorders.

Body systems affected by lacquer

Lacquer is known to negatively impact various organs and organ systems, primarily:

  • Airway and lungs
  • Bladder and kidneys
  • Eyes, ears, nose and throat
  • Stomach and intestines
  • Heart and blood
  • Nervous system
  • Skin

Items that can contain lacquer

Lacquer is mostly used to provide wooden surfaces with a glossy or matte finish, so it can be found on wooden furniture and floors. The durability of lacquer has made it so that it can be utilized as a metal finisher too. Moreover, lacquer is sometimes baked onto the interior of cans for food and beverages.

How to avoid lacquer

Lacquer exposure typically occurs while this substance is being applied onto wooden or metal products. To prevent this, lacquer application should be done in a well-ventilated area while wearing the proper personal protective gear, namely a respirator mask, safety goggles and gloves.

Those who work in facilities that manufacture lacquer should take extra care when handling this substance. Exhaust ventilation and air conditioning should be installed in the work area, specific soaps for washing hands at the end of the work shift should be provided, and, if necessary, odor-neutralizing chemicals should be made readily available.

Where to learn more


Lacquer can cause a variety of health complications if direct contact, ingestion or inhalation occur. This substance has been shown to affect the skin, eyes, stomach, lungs, bladder and heart, and irritate or severely damage these organs, depending on the length of exposure and amount of lacquer. Furthermore, lacquer can exacerbate pre-existing conditions of these organs.

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