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Wednesday, Jan. 17, 2007 07:02 am

Non-toxic paints

Find safe alternatives to conventional paints

Conventional paints can “off-gas” a number of potentially toxic chemicals. Fortunately, a number of nontoxic, low-toxic, and “natural” paints are now on the market.
Untitled Document I’m moving into a freshly painted apartment and am curious as to whether it makes any sense to repaint the walls with nontoxic paint in the hope of covering up the toxic stuff already there — or is it too late?
Conventional indoor paints do indeed release potentially toxic chemicals during and shortly after application; though once paint is dry most of the offending substances, collectively known as “volatile organic compounds,” or VOCs, tend to stay sealed up. For this reason, 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, they 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 human beings. 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. For those who suffer from respiratory problems or other symptoms on moving into a freshly painted residence or remain 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 nontoxic (or low-toxic) paints: zero-VOC, low-VOC, and so-called natural. Keep in mind, however, that the term “nontoxic” is used in its broadest sense. Even “zero-VOC” formulations, such as those made by AFM, YOLO Colorhouse, and Ecos, for example, can contain trace amounts (as much as 5 grams per liter) 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, Aglaia, and BioShield, are made from raw ingredients such as water, plant oils, clay, and milk protein and therefore usually contain minimal amounts of VOCs. Consumers can track down such healthier paints at retailers such as 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.
For more information: U.S. EPA “Introduction to Indoor Air Quality: Volatile Organic Compounds,” www.epa.gov/iaq/voc.html; Environmental Home Center, www.environmentalhomecenter.com; Greenhome.com, www.greenhome.com.

Send questions to Earth Talk, care of E/The Environmental Magazine, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881 or e-mail earthtalk@emagazine.com.
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