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Paint

Some paints emit harmful chemicals that can cause a range of health-related issues, from dizziness and headaches to liver or nervous system damage.

Healthier Paints

  • Green Seal-11 certified

  • Water-based latex

  • Low or no VOC (less than 50 g VOCs per liter)

  • Low-VOC color additives

  • No “antifungal” paints

  • No formaldehyde-releasing preservatives

Do’s & Don’ts

The Dirty Details

Low-VOC, water-based paints are generally better choices, but some may contain other harmful ingredients. Buy Green Seal-11 certified paints, consult the product’s Material Safety Data Sheet, or contact the manufacturer to avoid products with these ingredients:

Nonylphenol Ethoxylates

These common paint additives can disrupt hormones, are linked to reproductive harm and are highly toxic to aquatic life. Nonylphenol ethoxylates won’t be listed on the label and may not be listed on Material Safety Data Sheets, so the best ways to avoid them are to buy paint that is Green Seal-11 certified or call the manufacturer to ask.

Formaldehyde-Releasing Preservatives

Biocides, added to preserve paint, are often toxic and can linger in the air for years after a room is painted. Formaldehyde, a carcinogen and asthmagen, is also used as a preservative and can be released from biocides added to paint; ammonia, a respiratory irritant and asthmagen, can do the same. Biocides are generally not listed on the label or the Material Safety Data Sheet because they are added in such small amounts. The best ways to avoid them are to buy paint that is Green Seal-11 certified or call the manufacturer to ask.

Glycol Ethers

Water-based paints may contain solvents such as ethylene glycol, a respiratory irritant that can cause headaches and nausea, as well as reproductive and developmental problems. Studies have shown that children exposed to low levels of glycol ethers, such as after a room is painted, had higher incidences of allergies and asthma. Glycol ethers are generally not listed on the label or the Material Safety Data Sheet, so the best ways to avoid them are to buy paint that is Green Seal-11 certified or call the manufacturer to ask.

Phthalates

Some paints contain phthalates, plasticizers added to increase the paint’s flexibility. When the paint dries, phthalates can enter the air or stick to dust particles. One type of phthalate used in paint, dibutyl phthalate, or DBP, has developmental effects and causes hormone disruption in animal studies. Phthalates are generally not listed on the label or the Material Safety Data Sheet, so the best ways to avoid them are to buy paint that is Green Seal-11 certified or call the manufacturer to ask.

“Antifungal” or “Antimicrobial” Additives

Paints are often marketed as antimicrobial, claiming to better protect surfaces from germs and mold. However, there are no studies to support these claims and the added pesticides can be harmful to your health.

Crystalline Silica

Crystalline silica is sometimes added to paint for color and texture. Sanding or scraping the paint after it dries can create dust-containing crystalline silica, a carcinogen if inhaled.

Metals

Some metals, such as mercury and lead, are no longer allowed for use in paints. But toxic metals, such as cadmium and chromium, can still show up as pigments and should be avoided. Unfortunately cadmium and chromium won’t be listed on the label or the Material Safety Data Sheet, so the best ways to avoid them are to buy paint that is Green Seal-11 certified or call the manufacturer to ask.

Other Issues

Lead Paint

Before 1978, lead was added to paint to speed drying times and increase durability. During renovation, particularly when sanding or stripping paint, lead from old paint may be released into your home in the form of dust or paint chips. Take proper precautions before sanding or stripping any paint to contain paint dust (e.g., wet-mopping or isolating the work area) or contact a professional. Keep children away from the work area as lead exposure in children causes serious neurological and developmental problems.

Paint Stripper

Be aware that commonly available paint strippers are extremely dangerous to use, as inhalation of fumes can be fatal. Paint strippers often contain methylene chloride, a known carcinogen. Additionally, avoid paint strippers that contain N-Methylpyrrolidone or NMP, a solvent that has been linked to reproductive harm. To avoid these ingredients, the California Department of Public Health recommends using alcohol- or soy-based paint strippers.

Milk-Based Paints

Milk-based paint is a healthier alternative to conventional paint, typically sold by green building retailers. It is made from milk protein and contains no VOCs or harsh ingredients. It comes as powder, so the addition of biocide preservatives is unnecessary. The powder can be mixed with water and should be used on the day it was mixed since it can go bad. It can be used as an interior paint or to paint furniture. It is one of the least toxic paints, and may be a good choice if you are allergic or sensitive to latex paints.

However, milk-based paints may be unsuitable for high moisture areas, like the kitchen or bathroom. They also may not be compatible with some existing painted surfaces. Milk paint is a unique coating and it may take practice with mixing and application techniques to get the desired effect.

Certifications

  • Green Seal-11

  • Greenguard Gold

References

  1. California Department of Public Health, Paint Stripper Products: Safer, Less Toxic Choices. Available at https://www.cdph.ca.gov/Programs/CCDPHP/DEODC/OHB/CDPH%20Document%20Library/PaintRemovalPoster.pdf
  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Lead: Prevention Tips. Available at https://www.cdc.gov/nceh/Lead/tips.htm
  3. Hyunok Choi et al., Common Household Chemicals and the Allergy Risks in Pre-School Age Children. Plos One, 2010. Available at http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0013423
  4. Environmental Protection Agency, Healthy Indoor Painting Practices. Available at https://www.cpsc.gov/PageFiles/121965/456.pdf
  5. Neela Guha et al., Lung Cancer Risk in Painters: A Meta-Analysis. Environmental Health Perspectives, 2010. Available at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2854755/
  6. Healthy Building Network, CompAir Calculator. Available at https://pharosproject.net/volatiles/
  7. Mark J. Mendell, Indoor Residential Chemical Emissions as Risk Factors for Respiratory and Allergic Effects in Children: A Review. Indoor Air, 2007. Available at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17661923
  8. U.S. Green Building Council, Selecting Green Paint. Available at http://greenhomeguide.com/know-how/article/selecting-green-paint
  9. Washington Toxics Coalition, Paints and Wood Preservatives. Available at https://48h57c2l31ua3c3fmq1ne58b-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/paints.pdf

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