Drywall dust is arguably one of the worst things to deal with in a drywall sanding project. The dust gets everywhere, obscures visibility, and is also pretty difficult to get rid of once you are done.
Well, are there any ways to reduce dust when sanding drywall?
There indeed are, and we are going to talk about a few in a bit.
But first of all, we would want to discuss one thing that you may have never thought about – the health hazard of drywall dust.
Is Drywall Dust Dangerous?
When dealing with drywall dust, people are usually more concerned with the safety of their furniture, equipment, as well as the cleanness of their homes.
Aside from these, drywall dust is actually a huge health hazard as well.
Trying to protect your furniture and keep your home clean are perfectly valid reasons to fight against drywall dust, but your personal safety is a much bigger reason for carefully thinking about your anti-dust strategy.
What’s the harm of drywall dust though?
Drywall Dust Is Very Fine
Drywall dust is very fine and invasive, and it’s impossible to fully get rid of.
It is about 10 micrometers/microns in diameter (1 micrometer is one millionth of a meter or about 0.001mm/0.000039 inch).
Human hair, for example, is about 75 microns in diameter on average.
Drywall dust is extremely invasive, and it can easily make it into your airways, causing a wide array of respiratory problems.
Drywall Dust May Cause Severe Diseases
Aside from fineness, there’s one more hazardous thing about drywall dust – its ingredients.
Among the ingredients used in drywall joint compound are talc, calcite, silica, mica, and gypsum.
According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), some of these ingredients have been found to be associated with irritation of eyes, nose, throat, and respiratory organs.
NIOSH also warns that long-term exposure to drywall joint compounds may lead to persistent coughing, throat and airway irritation, phlegm production, and asthma-like breathing difficulties.
Things could get especially bad if silica is present.
The US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) writes that breathing crystalline silica dust can lead to silicosis, an incurable lung disease that could result in disabilities and death.
As OSHA explains, silicosis typically occurs after 15-20 years of “occupational exposure” to crystalline silica.
Aside from silicosis, exposure to crystalline silica also increases the risk of lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and even kidney disease.
Talc is also thought to be carcinogenic, but the evidence for this isn’t as clear.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer considers talc containing asbestos carcinogenic, but it’s not yet clear whether asbestos-free talc is carcinogenic or not.
How to Protect Yourself from Drywall Dust?
While the health conditions listed above occur after long-term exposure to drywall dust, you shouldn’t neglect personal protection even if you are going to sand drywall just once in your lifetime.
To protect your eyes and respiratory organs, you should wear proper equipment – namely, safety goggles and a respirator.
In fact, you should wear safety equipment that has been certified to be safe and effective.
You should check out this directory of NIOSH-approved dust masks (formally called “particulate filtering facepiece respirators”).
You don’t really need an oil-resistant respirator for drywall sanding unless you will be using it in other projects.
As for safety goggles, look for ones that are compliant with the Z87.1-2015 standard of the American National Standards Institute.
Particularly, look for goggles marked D5 for fine dust protection.
Make sure that you use your safety equipment properly – even the best safety goggles or respirators won’t protect you from the fine dust particles if used improperly.
Be sure to follow the instructions provided by the manufacturer of the safety equipment.
NIOSH also suggests that construction workers switch from hand-sanding to pole-sanding.
The pole will increase the space between you and the sanding surface, allowing you to stay away from the high amounts of dust close to the drywall.
How to Reduce Dust When Sanding Drywall?
No matter how well-protected you are, you would also want to reduce dust emission when sanding drywall.
You want to reduce or control dust for three purposes:
- In case your safety equipment fails to protect you – whether because damaged or improperly used – you won’t be exposed to as much dust.
- It will be less likely that drywall dust makes it to unwanted areas.
- Removing dust will be easier after you are done.
Do keep in mind that it is impossible to completely eliminate drywall dust and prevent it from spreading to other areas – no matter how well-isolated the area is, even the smallest cracks or holes will let some dust out.
With that said, you could dramatically reduce the exposure of your equipment, furniture, and other rooms to drywall dust if you control dust emission throughout the project.
Below are a few tricks that you could use to reduce dust emission and make cleanup a little bit easier.
Use Low-Dust Drywall Compound
Low-dust drywall compound is designed to make the fine dust particles stick together as you are sanding.
This makes the drywall dust particles heavier, forcing them to drop to the floor rather than float around in the air.
The not so good thing about low-dust drywall compounds is that it makes sanding a bit more difficult than standard joint compound.
Aside from that, you will have to spend some money to purchase a low-dust drywall compound, which may significantly increase the budget of your renovation project.
Make an Airtight, Negative-Pressure Barrier
Another solid method of keeping drywall dust inside the working space is using plastic sheet barriers.
The idea is to mask the walls, ceilings, and floors with the plastic sheet barriers to make sure that the drywall dust doesn’t escape to other rooms.
You should also cover any openings like doorways, windows, air vents, or ductwork (but leave an entrance somewhere).
Ideally, if there are no holes and cracks in the plastic sheet barrier, no drywall dust particles will escape the working area.
In practice, it’s nearly impossible to make sure that 100% of the dust will stay inside the working space, especially given that you need to leave a way out of the room.
You could overlap the sheets and seal the seams with duct tape, but you can never make sure that no dust will escape.
Due to this, you may make use of negative air pressure. That is, you need to remove air from the working space.
To help, install a box fan in your window to move air with the dust out of the building.
Make sure to leave at least one opening in the plastic sheeting so that air from other rooms can circulate through the room you are working in.
This may allow some dust to move the working space towards the clean rooms, but the negative pressure will ensure that only little dust escapes.
In rooms with no windows, this option obviously will not work.
In that case, you will only be left with plastic sheet barriers, and you will need to be ready to clean off the dust that manages to escape from the working area into clean rooms.
Employ a Drywall Vacuum Sander
Drywall vacuum sanders are a relatively recent addition to the arsenal of construction workers.
And they can be pretty effective at keeping the dust away from you – for example, NIOSH tested five commercially available hand-sanding vacuum systems and found that they reduced dust exposures by 80%-97%.
Usually, drywall vacuum sanders suck drywall dust away from the wall and into a bucket of water.
Water traps most of the dust and thus reduces the amount of airborne drywall dust particles.
Drywall vacuum sanders sound like a really good idea, but they don’t really work in large-scale projects.
The thing is that the suction makes moving the sander along the surface of the wall more difficult.
This won’t be a big problem in compact areas, but if you are looking to sand drywall in your entire home, you may have to spend a few weeks to cover it all.
Unless you have time, this isn’t really feasible.
This doesn’t mean that drywall vacuum sanders are useless in large spaces – in fact, you may use it in large projects, but you will have to limit its usage not to waste too much time on your drywall sanding project.
Switch to Wet Sanding
Another trick you may make use of is wet sanding.
While wet sanding can significantly reduce the amount of airborne dust, it has its own problems and challenges.
Wet sanding isn’t really sanding – it’s just smearing away drywall joint compound away.
For this reason, wet sanding is actually quite laborious and doesn’t work well on large scales. Like drywall vacuum sanding, it’s best to use in small areas.
Some people avoid wet sanding since it takes time for the drywall to dry out, not to mention that it’s more difficult to control the finish quality with wet sanding.
Besides, if your drywall joint compound happens to be insoluble in water, you won’t be able to do wet sanding.
Take Breaks to Clean the Dust
It may also be a good idea to take breaks to clean the dust while you are working.
This will allow you to prevent dust to build up on the plastic sheets, which in turn will make it easier to remove the sheets without exposing other areas of the house to dust.
During your breaks, you may simply wipe down surfaces with a damp cloth or a microfiber towel.
You may also use a vacuum cleaner to pick up the dust.
It’s up to you how often to stop to clean off the dust – generally, the more often, the better, but taking a break too often will take more time and effort than it will save.
How to Clean Drywall Dust After You Are Done?
After you are done, you will need to remove the plastic sheet barriers without allowing much dust to escape.
Most of the drywall dust will be on the floor sheet, so you just need to roll it up and remove it from your home.
You may want to do some sweeping and vacuuming in the room after removing the plastic sheets.
Plastic sheets won’t guarantee that some amount of dust won’t get onto surfaces underneath.
Here’s what you should do to remove dust efficiently:
- If you have a box fan in the window, you may want to keep it on to make sure that dust that gets airborne during the cleanup gets removed from the room.
- Sweep the drywall dust from the edges of the room towards the center. This won’t remove all dust, but you’ll be able to remove most of it from the floor.
- Make sure to sweep slowly to prevent the dust from getting airborne. You may also use a sweeping compound to prevent the dust from clinging to the floor.
- Collect the swept dust into a trash bag and immediately seal it.
- Vacuum the floors to remove most of the dust that’s still remaining on the floor.
- Wipe the floor with a damp microfiber cloth to remove the dust residue.
You probably won’t have to do a deep cleanup since the plastic sheets will have caught most of the dust.
But you may want to give the room a good clean just in case, especially if you will paint it afterwards.
What Kind of Vacuum Should I Use for Drywall Dust Removal?
The final point we want to talk about is what kind of a vacuum you should use for drywall dust removal.
Since drywall dust is very fine, conventional vacuum filters won’t be able to catch the drywall dust particles.
In fact, drywall dust may even damage your vacuum. Some manufacturers might even void your warranty if the vacuum gets damaged by drywall dust.
You should use a vacuum with filters that are designed to catch fine particles like those of drywall dust.
If there are such filters available for your vacuum, then buy them, but make sure that the manufacturer does allow the use of your particular vacuum model for drywall dust cleaning.
Alternatively you could buy an industrial/shop vacuum or dust extractor specifically designed for fine dust cleaning.
Although, if you only will need a vacuum for a one-time job, then you could look into renting as well.
Your project probably costs enough already so you might as well save money where you can!