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Hawk & Trowel - Spring 2009

Drywall Dust Control

The tiny particles that are a by-product of drywall finishing pose a big health risk. Luckily, there are ways to keep workers breathing easy.

by Elizabeth Gillette

Drywall Dust ControlAs most drywall contractors can attest, controlling dust on a job site can be an uphill battle. Finishing drywall to various levels of finishes requires sanding, and the dust produced by this process can wreak havoc on workers and work site. This byproduct of the sanding process is problematic for many reasons, several of which may not be readily apparent to those working in these conditions. There are, however, new options for remedying this problem.

The most important issue driving the need for minimizing drywall dust is that it can cause health problems in those who are consistently exposed to it. Drywall and joint compounds contain silica, which is a dangerous carcinogen. When sanded and made into dust, these building materials can be inhaled and cause serious health issues. As the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health states on its Web site, "Over time, breathing the dust from drywall joint compounds may cause persistent throat and airway irritation, coughing, phlegm production, and breathing difficulties similar to asthma .... When silica is present, workers may also face an increased risk of silicosis and lung cancer."

This dust can quickly make a job site hazardous. And not just for drywall contractors - those working in the space later, such as plumbers and carpenters, can also be exposed to the dust if it is not properly cleaned up. It also can be spread throughout a building via ventilation systems, exposing those in other parts of the building.

Dust ControlDarren Diess, vice president of sales for Dustless Technologies, explains that because silica is so lightweight, and the extremely small particles produced by fine-grit wallpaper float freely in the atmosphere, the dust is easily inhaled. While a mask provides a measure of protection, he says, the extremely fine particles are capable of slipping through the edges of a mask that is not properly fitted to a worker's face. Adding to the problem is the fact that drywall dust hangs in the air for a long time, longer than other dusts, prolonging the danger. Because of these factors, attacking dust near its source before it can be inhaled is an important concept to consider when controlling dust on a job site.

Besides the serious health risks posed by dust, it can also greatly increase costs on a work site. "Uncontrolled drywall dust gets literally everywhere," Diess says. "It can even escape into air ducts and coat entire other rooms with a fine coat of white dust that takes days to settle. It gets into every nook and cranny, and the expense of cleaning it up can seriously impact the cost of a project."

For homeowners, dust control can be more of an issue in renovation work than it is with new construction, Diess says. If drywall dust does gets into air ducts and spreads throughout a finished home, it covers furniture and drapes. "No one is going to be happy with that. In new construction, when the drywall is done, there are just bare floors and no furniture. However, it still has to be cleaned up. You don't want it being kicked up and settling on woodwork that is being finished or painted."

Peter Battisti, president of US Drywall Co. Inc. of Tacoma, Wash., says that dust control is particularly critical when working in existing buildings, and the most critical environments are health care and computer facilities where the dust, if spread outside the work area, can cause complications for electronics and those who are sensitive to health issues caused by the dust. Also, dust that settles at the bottom of a wall can keep the caulking between the bottom of the drywall and the floor from adhering, Battisti notes.

Tools that help
There are, however, a handful of tools at a contractor's disposal to help get a handle on the dust issue.

Loren Doppelt, director of product marketing for RotoZip, says it is common for contractors to use Visqueen or tarps to create a temporary smaller "room" where the dust can settle. Draping these materials around a work site creates a smaller space that seals the work site off, confining the dust and preventing it from escaping to other parts of a building. Zip Wall LLC is a manufacturer of equipment that does this. Their products include everything needed to create the smaller "room," are quick to set up, and keep dust contained to the workspace. DustCollectionProducts.com sells Zip Wall and is an Internet seller of general dust control systems for the construction industry.

While Zip Wall or using plastic around a work site is very effective in smaller projects that that don't take up much space, bigger projects will usually extend outside what can be contained with plastic. Also, because the dust is confined to a smaller space when using these systems, they can make it difficult to see inside the work area. And, some project managers don't want you simply throwing plastic sheets over things, says Diess. "That's not adequate. When the sheets are picked up, it kicks up the dust again."

Another tool in reducing the dust problem are dust-free sanders. Point-of-origin dustless drywall sanders use a vacuum integrated with the orbital sander, explains Diess. Vacuum air channels closely surround all sides of the sanding face. The dust doesn't get more than 1/4 inch away from the sandpaper before being sucked into the system. This helps keep the immediate work space clear of dust, increasing visibility, and also reduces the chances of dust escaping to other areas via air ducts.

There are several manufacturers of dustless drywall sanders whose products are aimed at the DIY audience, but Porter Cable and Dustless Technologies are two major manufacturers of dustless drywall sanding systems for professionals. The Porter Cable drywall sander has "a larger, round sanding face that is for professionals that have high productivity needs," Diess says. "You can move fast and cover a lot of ground, but the unit weighs about 8 pounds and an operator needs to be trained.

"The Dustless Technologies Turbo Drywall Sander has a slightly smaller, rectangular orbital sanding head that enables the operator to reach into corners and smaller places commonly found in bathrooms and kitchens," he continues. "Professionals often have one on hand to compliment their Porter Cable units. It weighs considerably less - only 4.5 pounds - and is priced within reach of small contractors."

Because drywall dust is extremely fine, it will tear up a regular vacuum. "If the filter system is not designed specifically for extremely fine dust," Diess says, "you'll see it cough dust out the exhaust port whenever you turn it on. All your efforts to contain the dust go out the window with one flick of the finger." Be sure to use a vacuum system that is meant to be used with this type of dust.

For corners, tight areas and touchups that can't be done with dustless sanders, Doppelt suggests sanding with one hand and holding a wet-dry vacuum hose in the other to capture the dust before it escapes. Keep in mind, however, that there could be problems with using this method for larger areas because of what drywall dust does to vacuums. Battisti also suggests considering a small handheld sanding unit made by Morris Mehrer of Mehrer Drywall Inc.

The better tapers prepare the walls, the less amount of sanding is required, Doppelt adds. The more smoothly and evenly the drywall is taped, the less touchup work and sanding needs to be done. This cuts down on the amount of dust created.

Battisti also suggests wet-sponge sanding to control dust. In this method, a wet sponge, made for use with drywall and available at most contractor supply stores, is used to sand drywall joints by hand. The water in the sponge captures the dust, and it is washed into a bucket when the contractor rinses the sponge out. While this does a great job of capturing the dust, this method may take much longer than other sanding methods due to the regular rinsing of the sponge. So this can be a good method mainly for corners and smaller or tighter spaces.

Finally, you want to minimize how much airflow you have in a work space, Doppelt notes, so the particles can fall as quickly as possible and not spread out to a larger area. This makes cleanup easier.

Contrary to what one might think, just blowing drywall dust away is never a good idea. "Moving air may be good to get rid of paint fumes or to cool off a work place," says Diess, "but it is not the best method for dust control because it can exacerbate the problem. Drywall dust is extremely fine. You may think you are blowing it out a window, but much of it is invisible to the eye, and having it in the air at any point is dangerous."


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