By Jessica Barber Goldblatt
We are surrounded by painted surfaces, in our homes. In conventional paint formulas, there are three basic elements which are pigment, binder and an agent to combine the pigment and binder into a liquid solution. In recent years the paint industry has responded to consumer demand for more healthful, greener products by reducing the amount of VOCs, in some of their paints. Most conventional paint manufacturers today offer low-VOC or zero-VOC versions of latex paints. However “zero-VOC” paints may still contain as much as five grams of VOCs per liter of paint — before tinting is added. The approach of paint manufacturers has been to focus and remove certain toxins from their paint formulas that have come under fire, not to take a holistic view of the overall safety and sustainability of their products.
While the reduction of VOC’s is a step in the right direction, VOCs are not the only problem with petrochemical paints. According to some sources, removing the VOCs from paints actually results in more ingredients such as fungicides, mildewcides, exempt solvents, and odor-masking agents overall as well as a more energy-intensive production process. It is virtually impossible to seriously scrutinize paint manufacturers’ claims that their products are sustainable and healthy to use because they fail to fully disclose their ingredients. Some of these may include:
Ethylene glycol ethers are primarily used in paints and cleaning solvents. Short term exposure to high levels of these chemicals can lead to conditions such as pulmonary edema, narcosis, as well as liver and kidney damage.
Formaldehyde is used as a preservative. It is a pungent-smelling, colorless gas, which can cause burning in the eyes and throat, nausea, and difficulty in breathing. Formaldehyde has also been demonstrated to cause cancer in animals and may cause cancer in humans.
Hydrochloric acid can be a colorless liquid with a strong odor, or a colorless to slightly yellow gas. It is used in the manufacture of pigments for paints. Exposure to hydrochloric acid may lead to circulatory collapse, respiratory illness, and a variety of other adverse effects.
Benzene is commonly added to paint to help it dry more quickly. It is an aromatic, colorless substance that evaporates quickly into the air. It is highly toxic when inhaled, and known to cause cancer, leukemia, and can affect the central nervous system.
Toluene is used in the production of paints, paint thinners, and lacquers. It is a sweet-smelling industrial solvent, created through petroleum refining. It is considered to be a dangerous neurotoxin, as well as a developmental toxin.
Even zero-VOC paints must be properly disposed of at your local hazardous material collection center to prevent contamination. The EPA estimates that about 10% of all paint purchased in the United States becomes leftover – around 64 million gallons annually.
Historically, latex paint along with oil-based paint commonly contained lead and mercury. While a concerted effort has been made on many fronts to curtail the use of these toxic ingredients in paint, the best way to avoid them completely is by using non-toxic natural and solvent-free paints.
Truly natural paints are so safe that a pregnant woman could paint the nursery with the windows closed without worry. And while they are more difficult to find in stores, they’re pretty easy to find online. Made from plants, minerals, milk-protein, and clay, they may offer a limited range of colors, but the natural depth and complexity of the colors are something that cannot be achieved with synthetic pigments. Natural paints are fast and easy to clean up. Unlike oil and latex, you can safely throw them in the garbage or rinse them down the sink with soap and water. Some examples are:
Plant and mineral paints are as easy to use as latex, require one to three coats and may need a primer, which is also available as plant or mineral-based. Of all the natural options, plant and mineral paints offer the largest selection of colors and are the easiest to use.
Milk paints are usually a mix of cow or goat’s milk, lime, clay, and earth-based pigments. A naturally rustic look with slight variations in shading add to its beauty. Milk paint ages well, does not chip, and becomes more lustrous over time. These paints are packaged as a dried powder and need to be mixed with water before use. They require one to three coats, dry quickly so you can re-coat in just two hours.
Clay paints offer a thicker, plaster-like finish with rich hues, are naturally mold-resistant, highly durable, and easily cover interior surfaces without need for a primer. They take one to two coats and help to regulate the temperature and humidity inside your home, staying warm to the touch in winter and cooler in summer.
Jessica Barber Goldblatt is the owner of Interiors Green — the Home and Living Store at 2021 Main Street in Bethlehem, NH. www.interiorsgreen.com.