Are Water-Based Interior Paints Safe for Kids?

Water-based paints have a reputation as being a “greener,” safer alternative to oil-based paints — but new research is finding otherwise.
By Keith Goetzman
April/May 2011
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Fumes from water-based paints containing certain solvents can be harmful to breathe.

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Water-based interior paints have a reputation as a healthier, greener alternative to the oil-based paints of yesteryear, but a new scientific study has found that children exposed to fumes from some water-based paints have a heightened risk of developing asthma and allergies. The news can be unsettling to any parent who has used water-based paints at home, even supposedly “green” paints.

The researchers — a team of scientists from Harvard University and Sweden’s Karlstad University — found that children living in homes with low levels of the compounds propylene glycol and glycol ethers (PGEs) were two to four times more likely to suffer from allergies or asthma. These solvents are used in many paints, including low- or no-VOC paints, as a replacement for petroleum-based solvents. Environmental Health News reported on the study, which was published in the October 2010 issue of the journal of the Public Library of Science, PLoS ONE:

Scientists measured [PGEs] in the bedroom air of 400 toddlers and preschoolers, and discovered that the children who breathed the solvents had substantially higher rates of asthma, stuffy noses and eczema. It is the first human study to link harmful effects of these chemicals to common exposures in households, and it suggests that they exacerbate or even cause allergic disorders and asthma, according to the [researchers]. 

Because painting a new baby’s room is a common DIY project for parents, this passage seems particularly troubling:

Children living in a house where at least one room was painted right before or after their birth had 63 percent more PGEs in their room than those whose houses had not been repainted. 

The compounds can remain inside homes for months or even years, according to the report from Environmental Health News. In addition to paints, PGEs can be found in water-based varnishes and cleaning fluids, such as glass cleaners. (Read the full study.)

Even if you don’t have kids, it’s surprising and frustrating to find that a widely used — and presumably safer — ingredient, often employed in “eco-friendly” paints, now appears to be harmful to human health.

To avoid PGEs, consider using interior paints made by Bioshield, Keim, Safecoat or Yolo, or milk paints from The Old Fashioned Milk Paint Co. and The Real Milk Paint Co.

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