Choose a healthier paint

“In the Los Angeles basin, famous for its smog, one of the larger sources of VOCs is paints for buildings and other structures. In the Los Angeles area, paints release more VOCs than all of the region’s oil refineries and gas stations combined. ... Southern California has the strictest VOC regulations for paints in the country, requiring emissions of no more than 250 grams per liter. ... A Johns Hopkins University study found that more than 300 toxic chemicals and 150 carcinogens may be present in paint. ”
- Debra Lynn Dadd, Home Safe Home, 1997

Things must have changed in the nine years since Dadd wrote Home Safe Home. Well yes, but not as much as one might think, or hope. Paints remain a significant source of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) as well as chemicals and metals which are hazardous to human health, although its difficult to find out exactly what they are.

Most paint manufacturers refuse to reveal information on the ingredients in their products. In the US, where state governments are responsible to reduce levels of smog-forming and asthma triggering VOCs, paint manufacturers have been battling in court to prevent state attempts to regulate their products. The State of New York recently sued the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for refusing to turn over records detailing levels of smog-causing compounds found in common household and industrial products like paints and varnishes. One document revealed that in 2002, Sherwin-Williams paid the EPA more than $5 million to avoid fully reducing levels of VOCs to required limits. More than 75 companies making similar products are buying their way out of pollution reduction in the US.

Paints sold in Canada are generally the same as those sold in the US. Canada’s Eco-logo program, like the US Green Seal, certifies paints which meet standards for lower levels of VOCs and elimination of some toxic ingredients like mercury and lead. Yet until recently, even these standards have been quite loose. Until January 1, 2006, the approved VOC levels for latex Eco-logo paints were identical to the 1997 Los Angeles standards for paint. Not much progress there! As of January 2006, stricter standards are now in place. However, only 20% of paints on the market comply with Eco-logo standards -- which means that 80% do not. Some of the toxic substances listed in the Johns Hopkins study are not acceptable in Eco-logo paint, but continue to be present in many other paints.

If you want to use a healthier paint which is readily available locally, an acrylic latex Eco-logo certified product which meets the 2006 standards is a good place to start. (Until January 2007, Eco-logo certified paints on store shelves may have been certified under the pre-2006 standards.) Latex paints are preferable to oils. Oil based paints contain solvents which off gas for months and sometimes years.

If you are looking for an ultra low toxicity paint , AFM’s Safecoat products and Farrow and Ball’s Estate Emulsion line are two good choices. These lines are particularly well tolerated by people with chemical sensitivities. There are also good alternative paint formulations, like Old Fashioned Milk Paint and Livos natural paints from Germany which are safer paint choices for both people and the environment. Sasco Chemicals in Dartmouth, NS produces some less toxic stains and clear coatings. Some of these less toxic products have not have Eco-logo certification, but can still be excellent choices.

Environmental choice is a voluntary program which gives Eco-logo certification toproducts which are less harmful to the environment and human health. New standards for VOCs limit interior flat paint to 50 grams of vocs per litre, while gloss can contain up to 150. There is also a list of substances which are not allowed in Eco-Logo certified paint including phthalates, hexavalent chromium, lead mercury and others.

But Eco-logo standards don’t screen out all hazardous substances. Eco-logo paints may include Teflon which includes the chemical PFOA. PFOA is now classified as a likely human carcinogen. Paints containing Teflon, even if they are low VOC, are not recommended for healthy homes or public buildings. If paint contains Teflon, in most cases the label includes a triangle symbol and the word “Teflon”, but this labeling is not required.

So if painting is on your agenda this summer, choose your paint carefully. It’s not just the colour you are going to live with. Paint can be a significant factor in indoor air quality for months or even years.

For additional healthier paint choices, as well as a wealth of other information see Prescriptions for a Healthy House by Paula Baker-LaPorte, New Society Publishing.

See also Healthy painting practices, Lead paint poisons children