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Environmentally-Friendly Paints and Stains

Learn about environmentally-friendly paints and stains and avoid the environmental hazards of home improvement materials.

| April/May 1997

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    MOTHER's painter Gail Larroca applies tinted shellac to an alder wood cabinet door.

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John Vivian discusses environmentally-friendly paints and stains and provides tips on using these products. 

In the early 1970s a young couple I know purchased a new kind of tool for removing the layer-on-layer of paint covering the woodwork of the old farm home they were restoring for their growing family. The gadget was an electric heat gun—a kind of souped-up hair dryer that softened and loosened the old paint so a putty knife could scoop it off like butter. The gun didn't set the paint alight or scorch the wood like a blowtorch, or create the sloppy mess of lye or the noxious odors of petrochemical strippers. And we all thought it was in perfect keeping with our newfound environmental consciousness.

But then their youngest son developed a persistent digestive upset that puzzled doctors till an old-time GP diagnosed it as "painters' colic." This is chronic, low-level lead poisoning once common among fine-art painters who shaped their brushes with lips and tongue, and unwittingly ingested toxic "red leads" and "white leads"—carbonates and oxides of lead that have been a major component in paints, putties, and topical ointments for centuries.

It took a while to isolate the source of the problem, but my friends finally (and broken-heartedly) had to conclude that they'd all been absorbing lead volatilized by the heat gun into a breathable aerosol that eventually settled on food, furniture, and playthings. Only the baby was small enough to present severe symptoms.

With medication and an end to heat-gun paint stripping, the boy recovered physically, but developed a mild learning disability that may or may not be a consequence of lead exposure. There is no way to know for sure.

There was less doubt about the cause of truly severe lead poisoning just then turning up among children from inner-city slums and rural centers of poverty. Far too many (underprivileged, often neglected) kids were absorbing disabling amounts of lead from paint chipped off woodwork inside and outside their old homes (as well as from tetraethyl lead in gasoline). The federal government moved quickly to eliminate lead from fuel and from paint products for use on, in, and around the home, and in public areas, as well as in glazes on cooking utensils and tableware, and finishes on toys and furniture.

10/24/2007 7:11:20 PM

my daughter in law, gave birth to twins into her fifth month of pregnancy, now at two months , they are gaining, and hopefully will not encounter problems with premature delivery, my question is she just bought to cribs, evidently they are made in China, she is concerned about the lead content in the stain. She contacted the store where she placed the order,who in turn contacted the mfg. they said the lead is .0000000000006% present, is this dangerous to her babies? Thankyou if you can reply to this, as we are concerned!

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