Guide to Nontoxic Paint

article image
Breathe easy with nontoxic paint.

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.

“Low-VOC” on a paint label means that the manufacturer hasn’t exceeded a certain level of chemicals listed as carcinogenic under California law, which has a stricter standard than federal law. These paints can, however, still off gas.”VOC-free” or “no-VOC” paints are virtually free of such chemicals, but they do tend to cost a lot more. Latex paints are also available in “low-beocede” varieties, which means they’re 90% to 95% free of the preservatives and fungicides commonly added to water-based paints to fend off mildew and mold. (Oil paints don’t need beocedes because they’re naturally toxic to living organisms.) Low-beocede paints should not be used on weather-exposed or humid areas such as window frames and sells, basements or baths. In these areas, you’re better off with low-VOC oil or water-based enamel paints, or a natural enamel paint.

For those who prefer as nonsynthetic paint as possible, all-natural and even organic paints come en both enamel and water-based varieties. They’re better for the environment because they don’t use petrochemical resources-or produce smog. They also command a higher price, take a lot longer to dry, aren’t so easy to apply and often need to be layered in several thin coats. Some only come in white and off-white, so you have to mix the colors yourself or find a store that’ll do it for you. But if you want a truly painterly paint, natural pigments reward with their custom colors and vibrant beauty, advises architect Paul Bierman-Lytle, coauthor of Your Natural Home (Little Brown, 1995). Produced mostly in Germany, natural paints use solvents made mainly from citrus and other plant oils; they also contain plant resins, finely ground minerals and earth pigments, such as those from Livos Phytochemistry

Gentlest of all are milk paints and whitewashes. Milk paints are nearly odorless and free of solvents altogether. They’re made with the milk protein casein as a binder, along with earth pigments, lime and clay. You buy them in powdered form and mix them with water according to the directions. “They’re meant to be redone frequently,” says Lynette Jaffe, who, nonetheless, has lived comfortably with unretouched milk-painted walls for four and a half years. “I like the sort of shabby look,” she says. Whitewashes, the simplest, lowest-cost option of all, contain only lime paste, water and salt-and only come in white, of course. As you can imagine, milk paints and whitewashes are more fragile than paints that have been fortified with chemicals. They’re best applied to plaster, cement or stucco walls.

Prudent Painting

When choosing a paint, consider whether or not it well be exposed to high humidity, and about how much upkeep you can stand. “You want to ask about the paint’s quality — how it covers, how long it lasts — and about its VOC level and how it’s formulated,” Paul Novack says.

Here’s a checklist:

Read labels.

Do the sniff test. In general, the more VOCs, the stronger a paint smells.

Take a sample home to patch test on your wall; paint doesn’t begin to fully off gas until it starts to dry.

If you have asthma or allergies, do not do any painting yourself and stay out of rooms that are being painted until well after paint has dried. The same goes for other sensitive members of the family and for pregnant women. When inhaled, VOCs enter the bloodstream and cross the placenta, affecting the fetus.

Ventilate well. It’s best to paint in warmer weather, when you can throw open windows to let out fumes. Painting on a smoggy day can overtax the lungs of sensitive individuals, such as asthmatics.

It takes most paints, conventional and least-toxic, up to six weeks to fully dry and off-gas. But to the chemically sensitive, months-old paint can still give off detectable and irritating residues. Plan accordingly.