Did you know that paints and finishes today are the #2 cause of air pollution, automobiles being #1? Did you know that the “fresh paint” smell comes from harmful toxins? The seemingly innocuous paint that we use every day in our homes may seem an unlikely cause of environmental and health problems, but it is!
Paints, and other products like cleaning supplies, pesticides, glues and adhesives, building materials, furnishings, carpet, even permanent markers, contain Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs). VOCs are carbon-based compounds which are emitted as gases into the air we breathe. There are thousands of chemicals used in paint, but VOCs are the most harmful. As the paint dries, VOCs are released into the air at high levels, but they continue to “off gas” for several years after the paint dries!
The environmental hazard comes from the gasses which form ground-level ozone, or smog. The health hazards include eye, skin and respiratory irritation, headaches, and dizziness among others. I certainly remember, as probably most mothers do, the caution to stay away from paint when pregnant!
Paint manufacturers have traditionally used VOCs to ensure quality and performance. However, the growing concern about VOCs has spurred the development of technologies resulting in paint choices that perform well and are also healthier and safer.
There are three types of essentially “nontoxic” paints. It is important to note that all paints contain some toxins. It’s a matter of degree.
These are the safest and least toxic. They are made with water, plant oils and dyes, natural minerals like clay, chalk, lime and linseed oil, even milk, eggs and flour!
Zero VOC Paints
These are paints which, by Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standards, contain less than 5 grams of VOCs per liter. There is no smell and they are considered safe to the environment and human health. These paints are increasingly available at reasonable prices.
Low VOC Paints
By EPA standards, these paints must contain less than 200 grams of VOCs per liter. These still emit odors until they are dry. If sensitive, use paint with less than 25g/liter.
But what about standard latex paint? It’s well known that carbon-based solvents found in paint are the biggest contributor of harmful VOCs. Many of us long ago switched to standard water-based latex paint, which has lower VOC levels than its solvent-based cousin. But don’t be lulled into the belief that using latex eliminates exposure and risk. In addition to solvents, the pigments and binders, which help pigment to stick to your walls, may also contain VOCs. Natural, Zero and Low VOC paints are a safer alternative to standard latex paint.
If you use the EPA standards for VOC content when choosing paint, keep in mind that those standards are environmental, set with the goal to minimize harmful smog-producing chemicals. Health issues were not the focus. Ensuring healthy indoor air quality is just as important a goal. We are building and renovating homes which are more air tight in order to achieve greater energy efficiency. We need to be concerned about the quality of the air we breathe in our tight homes! EPA studies show that indoor air is more polluted than outdoor air and that paints are among the leading causes!
The best advice I found for choosing paint comes from the nonprofit U.S. Green Building Council. Maximize ventilation when painting and buy the highest quality paint with the lowest toxicity you can afford. Your paint supplier should be able to show you the Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) for paints you are considering. It will list the number of VOC grams per liter. Also be on the lookout for Ethylene Glycol, a substance used in latex paints which is listed as hazardous in most states and by the federal government, and which can be toxic to humans.
By using low or no VOC paints, you will minimize health damaging toxins in your home and reduce landfill, groundwater and ozone depleting contaminants. “Green” paint. The healthy choice!