Guide to Nontoxic Paint

Here are some suggestions for using and buying non-toxic paints.


| June/July 1999


There's nothing like a fresh coat of paint to brighten even the dingiest, drabbest room. All too often, however, the "clean" smell of new paint is actually the result of its toxic ingredients evaporating. Conventional paints contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that vaporize, dispersing into the air we breathe. Paints are a potent source of indoor air pollution, which the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) puts on its top-five list of environmental hazards.

Paint VOCs originate from both petrochemical ingredients and from natural plant oils, such as limonene. Exposure to VOCs can result in irritation of the eyes, nose and skin, respiratory problems, headaches, nausea and dizziness. Petrochemical synthetics are by far the most dangerous. These include benzene, formaldehyde, toluene and xylene, which are known carcinogens or neurotoxins. Derived from petroleum, their use in paints contributes to the formation of ground-level ozone, or smog. In fact, a study by the EPA has shown that, while new paint is drying, indoor VOC levels rise to 1,000 times outdoor levels.

In California, conventional paints are classified as toxic waste and must, by law, be disposed of at special sites. While the occasional paint job alone won't produce the high dose of toxins that would put us at risk for cancer or nerve damage, it's wise to reduce our contact with VOCs as much as possible especially given that they emanate from so many home decorating products. Formaldehyde, for example, is present in some carpet glues and underlay, furniture glues, fabric treatments, plywood and particle board.Choosing low- or no-VOC paint is a simple way to eliminate one source of exposure, both for our families and the environment.

Any routine decorating job can turn ugly, but the wrong paint can be disastrous for your health as well. Such was the case for Gail Vareilles, who hired professionals to paint a large wall unit installed in her son's bedroom in 1997, and felt ill "as soon as they opened the can-with headaches, fatigue and flu-like symptoms. I became chemically poisoned," she says. It was the start of a yearlong ordeal. "I couldn't breathe in my own apartment," she recalls, "though I'd get better when I left the house."

The paint used on Vareille's wall unit was from a well-known manufacturer, but it was clearly the wrong paint for her. "I hadn't known the painters were going to use oil paints for an indoor furniture piece — it's so unusual to do that nowadays, when you have so many durable water-based paints," she says. Conventional oil-based paints contain about 50% petrochemicals by weight, and VOCs to the tune of about 420 to 450 parts per gallon.

By contrast, conventional water-based or latex paints contain an average of 240 VOCs per gallon and only about 5% to 15% petrochemicals. Unfortunately, the average latex paint is also fortified with harmful solvents, preservatives and fungicides, according to Paul Novack of Environmental Construction Outfitters (E.C.O.), which sells hypoallergenic, least-toxic home building and decorating products, including low- and zero-VOC paints. "To be labeled 'low-VOC,' the level per gallon has to be under 100 parts," Novack says.

Low- or no-VOC paints are widely available and can be found at competitive prices. "But you also want to be looking at the type of VOCs contained in the paint," Novack warns. "You want a paint that, in addition to low VOCs generally, doesn't have polyvinyl acetate, ethyl glycols, calcium carbonate or silicates. The first three are toxic solvents and the latter can act like asbestos in the lungs." To find out what's in a given can of paint, ask the manufacturer for its material safety data sheets, which they are required to provide. Some retailers, like E.C.O., also keep them on hand.





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