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True Colors: Non-toxic Painting

Posted By Stephen Collette On 2010/07/02 @ 1:11 pm In Healthy Home | No Comments


From the Allergic Living archives. First published in the magazine in 2009.

Painting a room or two is the single easiest project to undertake to improve the look of your home. A fresh coat brightens a room, and a properly chosen colour can help to set a mood. And importantly in tough economic times, paint won’t break the bank. However, to ensure the project is as healthy as possible, there are some good – and bad – facts to know before making your paint choices.

Chemical Reaction
Paint is concocted from numerous chemicals, some of which do amazing things. There are chemicals that can make paint mold resistant, others can make it dry quicker, harder, shinier or in a more vibrant finish.

Unfortunately, however, paint often contains toxic chemicals called Volatile Organic Compounds. VOCs have a petroleum-based composition, and are “organic” in the sense of carbon and hydrogen chemistry (not in the pesticide-free, organic food sense). VOCs are highly unstable and “volatile” – properties that cause them to fly around the air rather than sit still in the paint can.

These compounds are harmful respiratory irritants, which is why painting a room can be such a big issue for people with asthma, rhinitis and other sensitivities. Higher exposures to VOCs have also been implicated in liver damage and nervous system disorders.

Clearly, breathing them in is less than ideal. Symptoms from VOCs given off by paint include stinging and watery eyes, runny nose or more serious respiratory effects, headache, nausea, itchy or blotchy skin, dizziness or memory impairment.

Fresh paint does not dry as quickly as we think. Although it may feel dry to the touch, there are still millions of tiny chemical reactions taking place as it slowly hardens. Days or weeks may pass before paint stops “off-gassing” or releasing chemicals.

So moving into a room or home right after painting with VOC-laden paint can lead to low level, longer-term exposure to such chemicals. That can have as much or even more of a health impact as the painting itself.

What To Do?
The good news is that VOC-rich paints are going the way of oil-based paint and other dinosaurs. The green building movement has helped to make this a reality. Three years ago, I would have been hard-pressed to suggest an easily accessible low- or zero-VOC paint. Now, I can recommend choices among many paint brands, and options for more natural-based paints are on the rise as well.

Reading the labels on paint can be challenging, however. The labels are written more to sell the paint than to be educational, and important data are often missing.

Ask the salesperson for brochures, website links, and Material Safety Data Sheets. The MSDS are the active chemical ingredient lists – so for paint, these include the toxic stuff. All manufactured products must have them available, and they are often posted on websites. (There is still an information gap when it comes to a paint’s chemical ingredients as manufacturers don’t have to list “proprietary ingredients”, so that can be a black hole of chemicals.)

The other helpful thing about MSDS is that the company’s phone number has to be at the top of the sheets, so you can call directly and ask some more questions about what is in the paint, if this is important to know.

Many manufacturers of low-VOC paints are now starting to list on their cans the amount of VOCs that are in the paint. This provides you a baseline to work with when comparison shopping.

Who Says It’s Green?
In the green building industry, third-party certifications are becoming the norm. Contractors are wary of buying a product that purports to be “green” but proves to be otherwise. They look to the products that someone else – a really strict someone else – has tested and found to meet certain green and health criteria.

Third-party certifiers are organizations such as EcoLogo, Green Seal, GreenGuard, or Scientific Certification Systems. Look for products showing the certifier labels. For paint, they’ll be certifying for low- or no-VOCs. The certification standards vary, and can sometimes be confusing.

But know this: if a company has paid to have a product tested and certified, it has taken the extra steps to ensure it is doing more than just “talking up” green, and the product will be better than others on the market.

Remember to ask the same questions regarding the tints, those colorants we add to paint to get the beautiful shades. These can also contain VOCs, and your healthy paint could be messed up simply by turning a white paint to blue.

Next Page: Natural Alternatives

Natural Alternatives
Paint manufacturers start with a chemical product and try to make it healthier. Here’s another approach: why not just start with a natural product? Clay paints or plasters, lime paints or plasters, milk, and silicate paints have been around for hundreds, even thousands of years (think cave paintings), and hold up quite well. They also come in an amazing array of colors, and give texture and character to any room.

These types of paints, which can be found in green building supply stores and online, are a bit different than standard paint. As one of my clients once said of clay paint, “it’s kind of like spreading Devonshire cream on your wall.” Some lines come pre-tinted, so you simply choose from a palette, while others can be tinted to your heart’s desire. You can hire someone to apply the plasters or do it yourself, and the results will amaze you.

The Air in There
Remember that, beyond VOCs, there are other chemicals and airborne hazards in the paint and in the prepping of the room. While you will fare better by choosing the low- or zero-VOC brands, there are a few other health considerations when painting inside. Ventilation is essential, so open windows, and place a fan in the window blowing out, not in. That way the odours are drawn out of the house.

Run a dehumidifier to reduce drying time. If needed, wear a respirator and make sure it has chemical filters. That said, if you do need a respirator, you probably should not be using the paint you’ve chosen in your house. Think about it.

A Last Coat
Look closely at what the paint’s label says, who says it’s zero-VOC and read up on the brand before making a purchase. By making this choice, you are helping the planet, your family and the workers in the factory, all with a can of paint.

See Also: Allergic Living’s Paint Picks [2].

Stephen Collette is a certified Building Biology Environmental Consultant and owner of the company, Your Healthy House [3].

First published in Allergic Living magazine.
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