Green Trends for the Home: A New Monthly Series

Installment One: Non Toxic PaintSo, what’s wrong with conventional paint? 

Most paints contain chemicals that are harmful to the environment and may be harmful to you and your family. And it is not just the obvious oil based paints and stains. Even “latex” paint, which is considered a safe alternative by many, can contain some harmful compounds.These chemicals and compounds are used to perform the functions that we all need in our paint: pigment for coloring and hiding, binders to hold the pigment to the surface you are painting, and carriers to keep both the binder and pigment in liquid form. Some of the chemicals used may include petrochemicals, solvents, mercury, formaldehyde, and benzene. Additionally, lead, cadmium and chromium can often be found in pigments. That distinctive smell of paint is actually dibutyl and diethyl phthalate – two very volatile compounds.

These compounds release Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC’s) into the air we breathe. VOC’s are a type of carbon based chemicals that have the ability to rapidly evaporate. Once airborne, many VOC’s can then combine with each other, or with other molecules in the air to create newer chemical compounds. Some occur naturally and are relatively benign like the VOC’s given off by a freshly cut lemon. Usually, however, when the term VOC is used concerning indoor air quality, it refers to VOC’s derived from manufactured products, such as the solvents toluene, xylene and lacquer thinner. The American Lung Association reports that VOC’s can produce a number of physical problems such as eye and skin irritation, lung and breathing problems, headaches, nausea, muscle weakness and liver and kidney damage. VOC’s are consistently ten times higher indoors than outdoors, with numbers rising to 1,000 times higher after a new coat of paint.

Is there an alternative to these chemically laden paints? Fortunately, there’s something you can easily do to avoid creating pollution and unsafe living spaces. You can still have beautiful, colorful walls without poisoning yourself or the environment by using “non toxic” paint, also referred to as “low or no VOC” paint.

Large paint companies such as Benjamin Moore, Glidden, Kelly Moore, and Sherwin Williams now offer zero-VOC, low-VOC or odor free paints. While these paints are an improvement upon their conventional line of paints, according to Environmental Building News, (February 1999), “it is virtually impossible for a paint to eliminate VOC emissions entirely. These large paint companies still utilize colorants with some solvents, so tinting the paint introduces a small amount of solvent.”

Alternative paint companies however, offer broad color selections that are low or zero VOC. It is now possible to find paints that are formaldehyde free, emit minimal VOC’s (mostly naturally occurring), and contain additional sealing properties that reduce outgassing. Some alternative paint companies also offer lines of paints that are derived from milk protein, lime clay and earth pigments.

What are some additional tips on painting? Apply paint with adequate ventilation. If ventilation is not sufficient, wear a respirator with a filter that captures gasses. And carefully ventilate newly painted areas- preferably with large fans placed in an open window with windows open to exhaust fumes. Outgassing is at its highest during the first four days after painting with smaller amounts emitted over time. VOC’s also cling to fabrics and carpeting, multiplying the problem – so it’s best to ventilate a freshly painted room immediately.


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