Nothing is more pleasing to the eye and nurturing to the soul than being surrounded by colors you love. Everyone has a favorite, whether soothing blue, cheerful yellow, or calming sage. Now more than ever we’re using gorgeous paint colors and intriguing faux finishes to create distinctive, beautiful living spaces.
But before you roll out the drop cloths and head for the paint store, consider this: Most paint contains chemicals and compounds that are definitely harmful to the environment and potentially harmful to you and your family. Even latex, considered the “safe” paint by most, contains some of these detrimental compounds.
The good news is that many paint manufacturers, large and small, are going “green,” providing ecologically improved paints for use indoors and out. When these paints are used correctly and with proper ventilation, most of us will never suffer ill effects, especially when we choose less toxic ones.
A Primer on Paint and Its Problems All paint has three major components: a pigment for color and hiding power; a binder that holds the pigment to the surface; and a carrier that maintains the pigment and binder in liquid form for ready application. While household paint has not contained lead since it was banned by the Consumer Product Safety Commission in 1978, it may contain other harmful chemicals, including petrochemicals and solvents, mercury, formaldehyde, benzene, and a slew of others that can have harsh effects on the human body—from temporary dizziness to acute breathing problems, or even cancer.
There are two kinds of paint: oil-based and water-based, or latex. Oil-based paints contain drying agents, formerly linseed, soy, or tung oils; now, more often, that agent is a synthetic polymer known as alkyd. Oil-based paint requires a petroleum- based solvent for clean-up. Latex paint contains fewer harmful substances than oil-based paint, and because it’s water soluble, requires no chemical solvents for clean up. While both are available for indoor and outdoor applications, latex is the popular choice for interior use.
In fact, health concerns and environmental regulations are pushing the paint industry gradually to phase out oil-based paints and move toward latex, even for outdoor applications. “Latex paint is more breathable, has better color and mildew resistance, and expands and contracts with the wood more easily than an alkyd paint,” states the Choose Green Report, the publication of Green Seal, a nonprofit organization that sets rigorous environmental standards for products and services.
So, you’re saying, that makes it easy. Just use latex. Unfortunately, however, it’s not that easy. Even latex paint contains volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, that are harmful to you and the environment, although at levels lower than those found in oil-based paint.
The Trouble with VOCs
When exposed to sunlight, VOCs produce ground-level ozone, a major contributor to air pollution, indoors and out. “Studies have shown that ground-level ozone is harmful to both human health and agricultural crops,” according to a recent Choose Green Report.
Should we worry about the VOCs we create when we paint? Garret Brodhead of NonToxiCA Paints, a zero-VOC paint manufacturer, puts it this way: “According to the EPA, nine percent of the air-borne pollutants creating low-level ozone pollution come from the VOCs in paint. Nine percent. That’s a lot.” And an EPA study shows that VOCs are consistently ten times higher indoors than outdoors. That number rises to 1,000 times higher with a fresh coat of paint.
The American Lung Association reports that VOCs can induce a number of physical problems: eye and skin irritation, lung and breathing problems, headaches, nausea, muscle weakness, and liver and kidney damage. The elderly, pregnant women, small children, and those with compromised immune systems or environmental allergies are especially sensitive.
Choose Green Report editor Margaret Blanchard says to use your nose to sniff out VOCs. “Everyone knows that smell,” she says of new paint odor. It comes from VOCs, and “as long as you can smell it, it’s outgassing,” or emitting VOCs into your air space. The first four days are the worst, so make sure you properly vent the room you’re painting during that period, but smaller amounts will still be emitted over time. VOCs also cling to fabrics and carpeting, multiplying the problem.
Brodhead issues this strong warning about VOCs: “These toxins last for years. Most people think that when they paint their bedroom, the smell lasts for a couple of days then goes away. No problem. But it doesn’t go away; it just goes somewhere else.”
RECOMMENDED PAINTS AND FINISHES
For information on these products, call your favorite paint store or the manufacturer. Zero- or Low-VOC Conventional Interior Paints
• EnviroCote™, Kelly-Moore, (800) 874-4436, www.kellymoore.com
• Genesis™, Duron, (800) 723-8766, www.duron.com
• HealthSpec™ Low Odor Paints, SuperPaint®, Classic 99®, ProMar®, Sherwin-Williams, (800) 336-1110, www.sherwinwilliams.com
• Interior Tempo High Gloss Acrylic Enamel, McCormick Paint, (301) 770-3235
• Lifemaster™, ICI Dulux Paints, (800) 984-5444, www.icipaintstores.com
• NonToxiCA Zero-VOC Paints, NonToxiCA, (813) 736-0930, www.nontoxica.com
• Pristine®, Benjamin Moore, (800) 826-2623, www.benjaminmoore.com
• Promaster™, Glidden/ICI, (800) 984-5444, www.icipaintstores.com
• ServiStar Supreme Odor-Free Paints, TruServ, (773) 695-5000, www.truserv.com
• Speedhide®, PPG, (888) 774-1010
• Wonder Pure™, Devoe/ICI, (800) 984-5444, www.icipaintstores.com
• Various nontoxic paints, United Paint Mfg., (800) 541-4383
• Aura Natural Paints, Sinan Company, (530) 753-3104,
• Bioshield Finishes, Paints, and Stains, Eco Design Co./Natural Choice Catalog, (800) 621-2591,
• Ecological Paint, Canary Paint, Innovative Formulations Corp., (800) 346-7265
• Enviro-Safe Paint, Chem-Safe Products, (800) 657-5321
• Livos Naturals™, Livos Phytochemistry, (508) 477-7955,
• Low Biocide Paint, Miller Paint Company, (503) 233-4491
• Milk Paint, Old Fashioned Milk Paint Company, (978) 448-6336,
• Murco Wall Products, (800) 446-7124
• Ochre Palette, Ochre Pebbles, Sarut NYC, (800) 345-6404,
• Safecoat, American Formulating & Manufacturing, (800) 239-0321
TIPS FOR SAFE PAINTING
• Don’t waste paint. Calculate exactly how much paint you’ll need for your project with this simple rule of thumb: An average gallon of paint covers about 400 square feet. Find a handy paint calculator on-line at www.truevalue.com/paint/. • Follow manufacturer’s painting instructions to ensure safety, proper coverage, and long-term performance. • Even low- and zero-VOC paints release trace amounts of chemicals. Direct-to-outdoor ventilation is a must whenever you are painting; never let paint fumes circulate through your heating or cooling system. Wear a mask if you’re sensitive; with more toxic paints, use a respirator with charcoal filter. • Dispose properly of any leftover paint or use it elsewhere. Contact your solid waste or hazardous waste management authorities for disposal locations, or donate leftover paint to a local low-cost housing group, community assistance program, or a friend. If only a small amount of latex is left in a can, let it dry completely, remove the lid, and include it with your household trash. Never dispose of oil-based products in this manner; they must be taken to a solid-waste disposal site.
American Formulating & Manufacturing has developed its Safecoat line of paints especially for those who suffer from chemical sensitivity or environmental illness. These paints are formaldehyde-free, have very-low VOC content, and are formulated with additional sealing properties that result in minimal outgassing. Harris recommends the Safecoat line to chemically sensitive patrons.
Smaller paint companies offer their own lines of alternative paints. The Old-Fashioned Milk Paint Company in Groton, Massachusetts, makes paint from milk protein, lime, clay, and earth pigments. Packaged as powder to be mixed with water, milk paint is available in “deep, rich colors” and lighter shades, according to vice president and general manager Anne Thibeau. “It’s the most durable paint known to man,” she says. “Traces have even been found on King Tut’s tomb.” Milk paint will show water spots, however, so it requires a sealant such as the company’s low-VOC clear acrylic product. Casein paint is another type of milk paint, usually sold in liquid form.
Beyond Paint—Stains and Pigments
Natural Choice Products in Santa Fe, New Mexico, makes Bioshield products, a selection of paints, stains, thinners, and waxes from naturally derived materials. In addition to casein milk paint and zero-VOC paint, Natural Choice sells a full line of stains and sealers for wood applications such as hardwood floors, doors, trim, and exterior finishes. Bioshield Primer Oil and Resin & Oil Stain are recommended by garden gurus Smith & Hawkins for wood garden furniture, but they also may be used indoors on porous wood, stone,
or clay surfaces. While the Primer Oil employs some solvent, for the most part these natural finishes use linseed and orange oils in place of solvents and colorants made from ground stone and food-grade dyes that make them safe enough to eat. Natural Choice General Manager Deborah Binnion says to keep in mind that water resistance may be somewhat less than with traditional sealants.
Nine percent of the air-borne pollutants creating low-level ozone pollution come from the VOCs in paint. Nine percent. That’s a lot.
For more information, try these websites.
• Toxins and the environment
The Natural Choice catalog also features Livos nontoxic products from Germany. Jim Logan Architects in Boulder, Colorado, recommends Livos’ UraStain Paste, a water-soluble, earth-based tint available in a variety of colors, to stain doors and woodwork, and Gleivo Liquid Beeswax as a sealant. This eco-architectural firm experiments with many nontraditional products, including natural fabric dyes for adding nontoxic color to interior spaces.
For something a little different, New York-based Sarut markets natural mineral pigments made from ochre sediment found in France; it’s available in six shades, from pale yellow to burnt brown. Mixed with linseed oil and paint thinner, these colored “dusts” create a patina wash; optional green, blue, and red oxides provide color. Obviously, however, the end product contains chemicals you may want to steer clear of if you’re looking for a completely nontoxic product. For artists, these pigments also come in chunky pastel chalks called Ochre Pebbles as seen in “Goods,” page 34. They’re great for drawing directly on surfaces to create murals or stenciled finishes. Mix the provided resin with alcohol to create a fixative.
Jennie Shortridge is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Mademoiselle, Glamour, At-Home Mother, and Mountain Living.