Avoiding Toxic Chemicals in Paint

Joe Hurst-Wajszczuk suggests you avoid toxic chemicals in paint by using low-VOC paints to lower your health risks and keep the environment clean when painting your home.

| October/November 2003

A variety of low-VOC paints.

A variety of low-VOC paints.


Avoid toxic chemicals in paint by choosing safe paint for lower health risks.

I have to admit that I like the smell of fresh paint. Having lived in a collection of motley old apartments and homes, I loved the way a couple of gallons covered over the scuffs and stains left by the last tenants and created a "new" living space. To me, the aroma of freshly painted walls signified a clean start. But as it turns out, what my nose didn't know could have been hurting me.

That "new-paint smell" is caused by volatile organic compounds (VOCs), a class of chemicals that evaporate readily at room temperature. These toxic chemicals in paint are found in some pigments and also are added to alkyd oil and (to a lesser extent) latex paints to provide certain desirable working qualities, like spreadability, or to improve durability. Low-level exposure to these chemicals may cause temporary health problems, such as headaches, dizziness or nausea. Higher exposure levels, such as with auto spray booth operators, and longer exposure times can cause permanent damage to the kidneys, liver, and nervous or respiratory systems.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, indoor air is three times more polluted than outdoor air. Outgassing from VOCs contributes greatly to indoor air pollution. Outside, VOC emissions react with other hydrocarbons, nitrogen oxides and sunlight to create smog.

To address some of these problems, more than 20 companies now manufacture low- and no-VOC paints that perform as well as their predecessors. A number of paint products can give your home a fresh start without compromising your health. Here's an overview of some low- and noVOC paints, and a few all-natural options you can choose from for both interior and exterior painting projects.

Stick With Latex Paint

Although it can be made up of hundreds of different chemicals, paint still can be divided into two subcategories according to its primary solvent. In latex paints, water is the primary solvent; in alkyds, it's a petroleum solvent (oil). Latex paints, with much lower levels of VOCs, beat alkyds hands-down for safety. (Even the newly formulated alkyd paints use much more solvent than standard latex paints, and cleaning up brush es, rollers and spills after painting with alkyds requires additional solvents—latex paints clean up with soap and water.)

The biggest difference you may notice is with drying time: Low- and no-VOC paints dry a lot faster, and you'll need to work quickly so that you're always painting into a wet edge (painting over dried paint will leave a striped appearance). Because these paints tend to dry faster on rollers and brushes, cleanup may take a little longer.

6/11/2014 1:11:26 PM

I have had good luck with soy-based stain and sealer from http://www.ecosafetyproducts.com . I expected to see this company listed here.

6/11/2007 7:40:51 PM

You need to take a look at Ecological Paint, I have been doing research on the perfect non-voc paint product and from what I am reading, these folks have mastered both eco-friendly, without all the typical byproducts of an environmentally friendly paint product. I do wonder if you folks are capable of verifying the information on their site and checking the validity of the statements made. www.ecologicalpaint.com

3/16/2007 6:00:46 AM

I just read your article on paints and couldn't help but notice that you suggested that people should avoid cobalt in paints. As you stated this is a drying agent for paints and as far as I'm aware there is no (less harmful) alternative to cobalt that can achieve the same performance of drying. In fact I've studied a number of 'natural' paints which still contain this. If you know of an alternative that would allow for the exclusion of cobalt compounds then I would be very interested to hear of it. Many thanks in advance for your time, kind regards James Sumner

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