Dear EarthTalk: I’m moving into a freshly painted apartment, and am curious to know whether it makes any sense to repaint the walls with non-toxic paint in hopes of “covering up” the toxic stuff already there. Or is it too late?
—Erin East, New York, NY
Conventional indoor paints do indeed release potentially toxic chemicals during and shortly after application; though once paint is dry the majority of the offending substances, collectively known as “volatile organic compounds” or “VOCs,” tend to stay sealed up. As such, most people will not be affected once the telltale new paint smell has faded away.
If someone is suffering adverse health effects from exposure to fresh paint it should not be taken lightly. “Off-gassing” VOCs can cause serious respiratory tract irritation as well as visual impairment, headaches, dizziness and memory loss. Additionally, many VOCs have been shown to cause cancer in animals, and some are suspected of being carcinogenic to humans. Health effects vary greatly depending on the particular chemicals involved and the amount of exposure and individual sensitivity of those living with them. Besides paints, a wide range of other home products—including building materials, carpets, furniture, cleaning supplies and bug sprays—can emit VOCs.
If someone is suffering from respiratory problems or other symptoms upon moving into a freshly painted residence, or remaining sensitive long after a paint job, there are many paints now on the market that can help decrease the amount of VOCs emitted into the air.
There are essentially three general categories of non-toxic (or low-toxic) paints: zero-VOC, low-VOC and socalled “natural.” Keep in mind, however, that the term “non-toxic” is used in its broadest sense. Even “zero-VOC” formulations, such as those made by AFM Safecoat, Yolo Colorhouse and Ecos, for example, can contain trace amounts (up to five grams per liter or less) of toxic ingredients.
Some leading low-VOC paints can be obtained from manufacturers such as Cloverdale, Vista and Miller, to name a few. Industry leaders Benjamin Moore and Sherwin-Williams also offer their own low-VOC lines. “Natural” paints and finishes, from manufacturers such as Livos, Alglaia and BioShield, are made from raw ingredients such as water, plant oils, clay and milk protein, and as such usually contain minimal amounts of VOCs. Consumers can track down such healthier paints at retailers like the Environmental Home Center and Greenhome.com, and even at some of the larger home repair chains.
Precautions should be taken during the application of any paint. Only buy exactly what you need and apply it with adequate ventilation. Remember to always keep paints out of the reach of children and pets, and safely dispose of all unused product. If ventilation is not sufficient, wear a respirator with a filter that will capture and prevent the inhalation of VOCs.
Got an Environmental Question? Send it to: EarthTalk, c/o E/The Environmental Magazine, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; submit it at: emagazine.com/earthtalk/thisweek/, or e-mail: [email protected]. Read past columns at: emagazine.com/earthtalk/archives.php.