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by Fanny Lacroix-Jubelin
Are you aware that, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), indoor air is significantly more toxic than outdoor air? And toxins in paints and finishes are among the primary causes: they continue to release toxic emissions into the air, at low levels, for years after their application!
But what exactly is paint?
Modern paint is composed of essentially four ingredients: pigment, binder, solvent and property additives. Pigment provides the color, while the binder is the “glue” that holds everything together. The solvent adjusts the consistency, and the additives improve how the paint mixes and flows. These four types of ingredients combine to create a liquid that can be painted and will adhere to a substrate.
For thousands of years paints have been made from a wide variety of natural materials, such as lime, casein, linseed oil, chalk, clays, minerals and tree resins.
But with the growth of the petrochemical industry, the natural paints common at the time were replaced with synthetic petroleum-based products. This “new” synthetic paint eventually became the accepted standard for house paint.
However, these synthetic paints face a number of disadvantages.
They can contain up to 1500 different petrochemicals, many of which are harmful. Most of these chemicals, but not all, are regulated by the EPA using the term VOC (volatile organic compounds.) This definition is somewhat misleading though, as not all harmful paint chemicals fall under the VOC definition.
VOCs not only contribute to smog, they are also potent greenhouse gases. With the huge amounts of energy needed to drill, ship, and refine petroleum into components for paint, petroleum-based paints are simply not sustainable.
Petroleum-based paints, being synthetic and highly processed, produce colors that lack natural complexity and all too often look and feel “lifeless.”
What are the different toxic ingredients you can find in these synthetic paints?
VOCs: Many paints contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which refers to a class of chemicals that evaporate readily at room temperature. Oil-based paints generally contain more VOCs than water-based paints, making up around 40 to 60 percent of the paint’s contents. VOCs are the main solvents in oil-based paints, meaning they are used to dissolve and disperse the other ingredients. Water-based paints use water as the main solvent, but they still often contain five to ten percent VOCs.
Fungicides and biocides: Paints also contain toxic fungicides to prevent mildew growth, and biocides, which are used as preservatives to extend the full shelf life.
Pigments: Some of the toxic chemicals in paints come from the substances used to color them. Instead of chemical pigments, look for paints made with all-natural pigments. For example, hydrogen chloride is used in the manufacture of pigments for paints
Ethylene glycol ethers: This group of chemicals is primarily used in paints and cleaning solvents. While some are only recommended for industrial use, others are widely used in consumer products.
Formaldehyde: Formaldehyde is used in the manufacture of glues, and in a number of industries as a preservative.
Benzene: Benzene is an ingredient, which is commonly added to paint to help it dry more quickly. It is an aromatic, colorless substance that evaporates quickly into the air.
Toluene: Toluene is used in the production of paints, paint thinners, and lacquers. It is a sweet-smelling industrial solvent, created through petroleum refining.
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 is by using paints that meet all three better health requirements—zero or low VOCs, low biocides, and natural pigments. To find the VOC level, check the paint can label, or call the company and ask for a material safety data sheet.
Furthermore, consumer awareness and new EPA regulations have driven the demand for a safe alternative, and led to the new and emerging market for non-toxic paint. The VOC producing chemicals, which were once thought to be necessary to the development of high performance paint, have been eliminated or greatly reduced in new low VOC or no VOC non-toxic paint varieties. This new, safer generation of non-toxic paint provides many benefits to the environment and to consumers:
· Health: reduced toxins benefit everyone, including those with allergies and chemical sensitivities.
· Environment: reducing landfill, groundwater and ozone depleting contaminants.
· Effective: low-VOC products perform well in terms of coverage.
· Water-Based: easy cleanup with soap and warm water.
· Little or no hazardous fumes: low odor during application; no odor once cured. No off-gassing. Painted areas can be occupied sooner, with no odor complaints.
· Not deemed hazardous waste: cleanup and disposal greatly simplified.
But be careful, green paint is not always non-toxic paint !
Environmental concerns are often discussed in combination with health concerns. It is important to note that these are not always the same issue. In the case of paint, some paints, which are considered environmentally friendly, may not be non-toxic. For example, recycled paint is a good choice for reducing waste that is harmful to the earth, but it is not necessarily non- toxic paint. It is important to carefully read labels, not just taglines.
Types of Non-Toxic Paints and Finishes
The term "non-toxic" is used here in its broadest sense. With paints and finishes, it's more a matter of degree. Even Zero-VOC formulations contain some small amounts of toxins. Here are three general categories of non-toxic (or low-toxic) paints: Natural Paints, Zero VOC, and Low VOC.
Natural Paints and Finishes - These are paints made from natural raw ingredients such as water, plant oils and resins, plant dyes and essential oils; natural minerals such as clay, chalk and talcum; milk casein, natural latex, bees' wax, earth and mineral dyes. Water-based natural paints give off almost no smell. The oil-based natural paints usually have a pleasant fragrance of citrus or essential oils. These paints are the safest for your health and for the environment.
Zero VOC - Any paint with VOC's in the range of 5 grams/liter or less can be called "Zero VOC", according to the EPA. Some manufacturers may claim "Zero-VOC's", but these paints may still use colorants, biocides and fungicides with some VOC's.
Adding a color tint usually brings the VOC level up to 10 grams/liter, which is still quite low.
Low VOC - Low VOC paints, stains and varnishes use water as a carrier instead of petroleum-based solvents. As such, the levels of harmful emissions are lower than solvent-borne surface coatings. These certified coatings also contain no, or very low levels, of heavy metals and formaldehyde. The amount of VOC's varies among different "low-VOC" products, and is listed on the paint can or MSDS. Paints and stains, to meet EPA standards must contain no more than 250 grams/liter of VOCs in “low-VOC” latex paints and no more than 380 grams/liter for “low-VOC” oil-based paints. As a general rule, low VOC paints marketed by reputable paint manufacturers usually meet the 50 grams/liter VOC threshold. Paints with the Green Seal Standard (GS-11) mark are certified lower than 50 grams/liter (for flat sheen) or 150 grams/liter (for non-flat sheen).
Low VOC paints will still emit an odor until dry. If you are particularly sensitive, make sure the paint you buy contains fewer than 25 grams/liter of VOC's.
VOC Absorbing Paints - these specialty paints contain an active ingredient that absorbs VOCs like formaldehyde. They remain trapped (cannot be removed) within the product indefinitely.
Stains: like paints, stains can also contain high levels of biocides, fungicides, and VOCs, which pose the same problems outlined in the paint sections above. Paint is preferable to stain due to the higher levels of pesticides in stain.
To avoid polluting your indoor air and outdoor environment, use water-based stains and sealants without biocides and added dryers, or those made with beeswax or carnauba wax.
Here is a list of Natural and Zero VOC products available on the market today:
AFM Safecoat: www.afmsafecoat.com
Anna Sova: www.annasova.com
Green Planet Paints: www.greenplanetpaints.com
The Real Milk Paint Company: www.realmilkpaint.com
The Old Fashioned Milk Paint: www.milkpaint.com
ECOS Paints: www.ecospaints.net
Kelly-Moore Enviro-Cote: www.kellymoore.com
Devoe Wonder Pure: www.1754paint.com
American Pride: www.southndiversifiedproducts.com
Yolo Colorhouse: www.yolocolorhouse.com
Mythic Paints: www.mythicpaint.com
Homestead Paints: www.homesteadhouse.ca
Masters Blend: www.mastersblendfinish.com
Silacote (masonry, concrete): www.silacote.com
ECOS Paints (VOC absorbing paints): www.ecospaints.net
Air Pure Paint (VOC absorbing paints): http://www.airpurepaints.com
Timber Ox Green (wood stain & concrete sealer-Low VOC): www.timberoxinfo.com
Paint stripper: Citristrip; Peelaway.
· Read the label and product literature: Besides general information, look for:
VOC Content: Usually listed in grams per liter, this can range from 5 to 200. Using a product with the lowest VOC content will yield the lowest overall health risk.
Solids Content: Solids, or pigments, can range in concentration from 25% to 45% by volume. The higher the percent solids, the less volatile is the paint.
EPA, OSHA, DOT Registrations: When a product has an EPA, OHSA or DOT registration number, this means that it contains toxic ingredients which must be monitored. One way to ensure that you are using a product that is safe both for the environment and the applicator is to seek out products which are not registered with these agencies.
· Buy the right amount of paint for the job. Before you begin a painting project, measure the area first. Calculate the area to be painted (height x width = total square feet). One gallon covers about 400 square feet.
· Re-use Turpentine and Paint Thinners. Simply allow used thinner or turpentine to stand in a closed, labeled container until paint or dirt particles settle to the bottom. Pour off the clear liquid and reuse.
· Avoid Cleaning Brushes and Rollers. Paintbrushes and rollers used for an on-going project can be saved overnight, or even up to a week, without cleaning at all. Simply wrap the brush or roller snugly in a plastic bag. Squeeze out air pockets and store away from light. The paint won't dry because air can't get to it. Simply unwrap the brush or roller the next day and continue with the job. (This works for water and oil-based paints and stains. It does not work for varnishes or lacquers.)
When you do finally wash you brushes or rollers, wash them in a bucket of water rather than in the sink. Pour the used paint-laden water in a sealed container and bring to your local waste depot along with your empty paint cans.
· Natural Brush Cleaner. Turpentine, made from the resin of coniferous trees, is an environmentally friendly solvent. It is excellent for cleaning brushes used with oil-based paints, and for cleaning up small drips. Use a short glass jar, filled no higher than the bristles. Add a few drops of dishwashing liquid. After cleaning the brush, rinse with water.
· Circulate. To reduce the impact of indoor air pollutants, circulate fresh air through your house as often as possible. Avoid the use of spray paints altogether. You can reduce fresh paint odors by placing a small dish of white vinegar in the room.
· Beware Old Lead Paint. If your home was built before 1978, there is a good chance it has lead-based paint. In 1978, the federal government banned consumer uses of lead-containing paint, but some states banned it even earlier. Lead from paint, including lead-contaminated dust, is one of the most common causes of lead poisoning.
· Store partially full cans upside down. Leftover paint can be saved for months if stored properly. Make sure the lids are well sealed, then store the cans upside down. This prevents air from getting inside the can and causing the paint to thicken and dry.
· Solidify old paint. Leftover paint should not be poured down the drain because groundwater supplies may be affected. By removing the lid, the remaining unwanted paint will solidify and then can be treated as solid waste.
· Remember the BUD rule. BUY no more product than you need. Ask your retailer for help in assessing the quantity you need. USE up the entire product you buy. Give leftovers to a neighbor or community organization. DISPOSE of leftovers in a safe, responsible manner.