Spring light always seems to reveal mess and dinginess that has accumulated over the winter and, for centuries, has kicked off the ritual known as ‘spring cleaning.’ Painting has long been a part of spring cleaning. In the old days it was most often whitewashing, which used a solution of water and slaked lime or calcium carbonate. In older houses you may still see traces of this white paint in dirt cellars or old dairy barns, but it was used as exterior paint too. Whitewash is mildly antibacterial, and when applied repeatedly on rough surfaces, such as barn interiors, removes debris as it flakes and drops to the floor. Whitewashing was also nontoxic.
Today our impulse to whiten and brighten our homes is a lot more problematic. Paint manufacturing is a significant source of pollution, and paints and stains can contribute to unhealthful indoor air. The worst of the worst, ironically, is the color we associate with cleanness. White paint is most often pigmented with titanium dioxide (TiO2). This has high embodied energy. Emissions during manufacturing include CO2, N2O, SO2, NOX, CH4, and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). The waste stream includes spent acid and metal sulfates. Raw materials are derived from scarce resources. TiO2 is also implicated in the high rate of cancer among professional painters. (Colored pigmets can have impacts, but generally are not as intense.) When buying a white or light-colored paint, look for one that is water-based paint (the vast majority of paints available to the consumer), with low TiO2 content, low quantities of binder, and low levels of organic solvents.
VOCs are the element of paint hazard that most people have heard of. These come from solvents added to help paint dry, to facilitate mixing, or to provide better coverage. After application, they can continue to emit for up to a year. VOCs react with oxygen to form an ozone layer in the presence of sunlight, contributing to smog and to global warming as part of the greenhouse effect.
But it’s their contribution to poor indoor air quality that has given VOCs their bad name, and they have other common sources which accumulate in the home. Paints, strippers, solvents, wood preservatives, aerosol sprays, cleaners and disinfectants, moth repellents and air fresheners, stored fuels and automotive products, hobby supplies, dry-cleaned clothing, pesticides, building materials and furnishings, office equipment chemicals, graphic and craft materials including glues, markers, and photographic solutions, are all sources of VOCs. They cause eye, nose, and throat irritation, headaches, loss of coordination, nausea, damage to liver, kidney, central nervous system damage, and cancer.
Luckily there are many ways to avoid VOCs and other harmful aspects of paint. The simplest may be to hire an eco-friendly painting service and leave it all to them. If you want or need to be more minutely involved, check out The Good Trade, which lists eight enviromentally friendly paint lines on its werbsite. Some are from nationally known companies like Sherwin Williams. Others are more obscure. Cleaner, safer paints tend to be more expensive, but Behr puts out a zero VOC line of paint that is more affordable. Green paints are especially important in well-insulated houses with a tight thermal envelope, so if you’ve done your work in that regard, you owe it to yourself to choose paint wisely. Look out for biocides/fungicides, toxic pigments, and VOCs. EPA requirements allow no more than 250 grams per liter (g/l) of VOCs in latex paint labeled low VOC, no more than 250 g/l in oil-based low VOC paint. Some makers including Behr and Sherwin Williams have lower options between 50 and 150 g/l, and some have zero. Low VOC interior latex paints come in matte, eggshell, and semi-gloss finishes. For exterior use, Behr has an acrylic, low VOC paint that resists mildew, fading, and staining.
Other options include milk paint, which is made of milk protein, limestone, clay, chalk, natural pigments. Milk paint is biodegradable with no VOCs. Powder is mixed with water to a thin creamy consistency and is used for wood furniture or lime plastered walls. Chalk paint gives furniture a distressed matte finish, with no prep needed other than cleaning; it offers low VOCs and can be used indoor and out. Ceramic paint is antimicrobial and low VOC. It is durable, repels smoke, dirt, and bacteria, and eliminates growth of mold and mildew. Linseed oil paint is solvent-free, made of flax oil and natural pigments, and it can be used on wood, masonry, metal and plastic indoors and out.
People living a vegan lifestyle may want to bear in mind that some paint ingredients have animal origins, such as casein, a milk protein, and shellac, a resin exuded by the female lac beetle.
For an eco-friendly ethical design contractor look for National Association of the Remodeling Industry (NARI) certification, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certifications and experience.
Jessie Haas lives in an off-grid cabin in Westminster West, VT.. She is the author of over 40 books for children and adults.