Who hasn't walked into a just-painted room and been assailed by a smell strong enough to fry nose hairs? Well, breathe easier, would-be home decorators, because new generation paint supplies mean better indoor air quality and a gentler ecological footprint.
Who hasn’t walked into a just-painted room and been assailed by a smell strong enough to fry nose hairs? Or worse, experienced a headache or dizziness?
When Greg Seaman’s brother severely reacted after a nap in a newly painted bedroom, this Parksville, BC, resident began researching paint toxicity. “I realized the problem was significant,” he recalls. “I didn’t want my children exposed.”
Well, breathe easier, would-be home decorators, because new generation paint supplies mean better indoor air quality and a gentler ecological footprint.
But first, get rid of any old paint strippers or paints. Most release volatile organic compounds (VOCs) responsible for “eye, nose, and throat irritation; headaches, loss of coordination, nausea, damage to liver, kidney, and central nervous system,” notes the US Environmental Protection Agency website. “Some [VOCs] can cause cancer in animals; some are suspected or known to cause cancer in humans.”
VOC levels are up to 10 times higher indoors than outdoors, according to EPA studies, but during and for several hours after activities such as paint stripping, indoor levels jump to 1,000 times higher.
Old strippers whose caustic action melted paint contained the active ingredient methylene chloride, a known carcinogen. Fortunately, several new varieties contain N-Methylpyrrolidone, an organic solvent that’s water soluble and non-toxic.
Improved regulations and consumer demand have also motivated most big paint brands to develop zero- and low-VOC products that are less toxic, long-lasting, and well-priced. Then there are natural paints that come in a variety of colours and finishes. Look for those with ingredients such as milk casein, plant oils, earth and mineral dyes, natural latex, clays, chalk, and talcum.
Seaman discovered these choices for himself, but not without effort. He visited every paint store in town and eventually chose a low-VOC paint. “There was almost no smell,” he enthuses, “No feeling of taking in fumes. No headaches, and the room could be occupied shortly after painting. Also, cleaning the brush and rollers was better because I wasn’t worried about pouring chemicals into the watershed.”
To assist others, Seaman’s website on sustainable living, www.eartheasy.com, is an excellent Canadian resource on painting tips and brand name suggestions.
Read the label and product literature, Seaman suggests. Look for:
- VOC content Usually listed in grams per litre, this ranges from 5 to 200. A product with lower VOC content will yield the lowest overall health risk.
- Solids content Solids, or pigments, can range in concentration from 25 to 45 percent by volume. The higher the percent of solids, the less volatiles in the paint.
- EPA, OSHA, DOT registrations When a product has an EPA, OHSA, or DOT number, it contains toxic ingredients that must be monitored. Ensure you’re using a product safe both for the environment and yourself by seeking out products not registered with these agencies.
Buy in small quantities so you don’t need storage. As gases can leak even from closed containers, dispose of unused product in accordance with local regulations.
Always follow manufacturer’s directions, and ensure excellent ventilation. Whenever possible, use products outdoors to help keep your indoor air clean and fume-free.