Allergy-Friendly Painting: How to Skip the VOCs
Allergic Living’s primer on how to brighten your walls and your world – without the toxic VOCs.
Originally published in our Summer 2014 magazine.
When it comes to sprucing up your home, nothing gives you more bang for your buck than a fresh coat of paint- but if you or others in your household have asthma or sensitivity to chemicals, you’re probably thinking, “What about the fumes?”
The good news is that the paint industry is increasingly focused on creating less harmful products. But whether you’re buying old-fashioned latex, no-VOC eco-paints or natural alternatives, there is plenty you need to know before you get rolling.
Head for your local paint or hardware store and you’ll find a dizzying array of paint choices, many of them labeled low-VOC or no-VOC. So what exactly does that mean?
Volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, are a range of chemicals that perform a variety of tasks in products such as paints, solvents, cleaning agents and adhesives. But they all have one thing in common: they emit gases from liquids and solids at room temperature, and those gases can trigger a host of physical reactions, including asthma flare-ups, headaches, dizziness, skin irritation and more.
According to Laureen Burton, a chemist and toxicologist with the Indoor Environments Division of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, most latex paints today use water as their basic solvent, with the VOCs as another solvent that helps carry other chemicals – the binders, pigments, anti-microbial agents and other components that give color, sheen and texture – to the surface being painted. Then, as the paint dries, those chemicals slowly evaporate into the air and, even after drying, that off-gassing can continue for an extended period of time.
What many consumers don’t understand is that, even if you opt for a low- or no-VOC paint, as soon as you add color to it- especially the rich, saturated colors – or buy products with other additives such as binders, fungicides and anti-microbials, you may be substantially upping the load of VOCs.
A Different Shade
While paint often gets a bad rap for its chemical content, Eden Brukman, technical director of the Health Product Declaration Collaborative, says that the industry is a model for building manufacturers, because paint makers have learned to remove many harmful elements from their products without putting a serious dent in the quality.
Among the companies she recommends are Mythic Paint, which makes non-toxic, ultra-low-odor paint that provides the durability and coverage of a conventional paint – minus the VOCs and other toxic chemicals.
Portland’s Yolo Colorhouse is another favorite that makes premium zero-VOC interior paints without hazardous air pollutants, ozone-depleting compounds or other harmful chemicals.
But if you want to move away from conventional paints altogether, and you don’t mind a slightly different look and feel, there are plenty of natural alternatives, among them natural clay paints and plasters by companies such as American Clay, and old-school milk paints by companies such as the aptly named Old-Fashioned Milk Paint Company. (Of course natural products can also cause reactions in some people – for example, if you’re allergic to dairy then milk paint likely isn’t for you – so if you have any concerns, make sure to check with your doctor.)
Of the bigger players, Benjamin Moore is renowned for its no-VOC Natura line, and other large companies such as Miller Paint and Sherwin-Williams have joined the Health Product Declaration, and they are pushing to do things differently.
But Brukman emphasizes that people with asthma and chemical sensitivities need to look not only at the chemical content of the paints they are applying, but at all the materials that they’re bringing into their homes – because even if you use a range of products that are low-VOC, those volatile compound levels can add up.
“In the ’90s there was a study done of a preschool in the Netherlands that was never occupied because it had sick building syndrome. And even after several years, they took samples of some of the surfaces and were getting very high levels of VOC readings because of all the different types of materials,” says Brukman, whose organization provides a venue for manufacturers to share information about their product ingredients and screens products for human health hazards. “There’s still a lot to learn about how these products that we’re putting into a single space interact, plus you’re dealing with the HVAC and a lot of other variables.
“We’re not painting in a vacuum,” she says. “We’re putting it into a dynamic environment.”
Next: How to Protect Your Health When Painting