Do-it-yourselfers work with many materials that pose respiratory hazards and too often fail to take proper precautions because either the hazard or correct precautions aren't fully understood.

Besides such obvious hazards as asbestos fibers and lead-paint dust, health problems can be caused by breathing particles or fumes of some wood dusts and chemical dusts, paint removers, paints, adhesives, insecticides, wood fillers, insulations and a variety of solvents.More and more experts recommend that do-it-yourselfers wear an appropriate respirator-type mask when working with any substance that is or could be harmful if inhaled.

Selecting the proper mask can be tricky in itself, and I'll give some tips in this column, but first, some general comments.

Hazards posed by some common do-it-yourself materials often aren't fully understood because many do-it-yourselfers don't take the time to read the labels on containers. For example, most users of paint removers containing methylene chloride know that the products can seriously damage eyes and skin, but containers also warn that good ventilation is needed because the vapors are dangerous. It can help to work outdoors or open windows and set up exhaust fans if indoors, but a respirator mask rated for vapor protection will improve safety even more.

Another good strategy for do-it-yourselfers is to look for products that have been made healthier and safer to the user and the environment. The list of these products is growing and already includes several types of less hazardous paint removers (Safest Stripper is an example) and a wide variety of water-based clear finishes, paints and stains.

Unfortunately, although most home centers and hardware stores sell a variety of masks, some of the masks don't provide adequate protection for toxic materials.