On two occasions in recent months we've needed painting done in our apartment -- once due to water damage and another time because we enlarged a room. For the first job, we got low-VOC paint; for the second one -- completed last night -- we forgot.
What a mistake! We are living with the consequences this morning and will go on living with them for a long time to come. I don't just mean the new paint smell now pervading our home, but the health risks that go with it.
Conventional paint -- the kind you get if you forget to ask for something different-- emits volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, that are toxic. What makes them volatile is that they don't want to stay in liquid (or solid) form; they tend toward the gaseous state. Hence, first chance they get, they vaporize.
In the case of paints, evaporation is greatest during and right after application, but continues at lower levels for months. The gases mix with the air in the room, exposing occupants to chemicals that can have a rash of short- and long-term effects, including eye irritation; respiratory problems; headaches; loss of coordination; nausea; and damage to the liver, kidneys and central nervous system. Exposure to VOCs has also been linked to cancer.
Why are VOCs in paint in the first place? They keep the other components -- pigment for color and a binder or resin to make the paint stick -- in a liquid solution long enough for the paint to be applied, then conveniently evaporate so the paint can dry.
In other words, VOCs serve a necessary function, but they are not the only possible answer to the problem, as manufacturers have recently discovered -- or, you might say, rediscovered, since paints have been made without VOCs through most of history.
The upshot is that nowadays many companies offer alternative low- and no-VOC formulas side-by-side with their conventional high-VOC brands. And you don't need to look far to find them. For instance, I was able to locate low-VOC paint at our local Janovic Plaza.
Keep in mind, though, that "low-VOC" is not a clearly defined term. With some paints, it means 49 grams/liter of VOCs; with others, 149 grams/liter. To judge whether the level is low enough for safety, use the following limits, which were established by the non-profit group, Green Seal, as part of its GS11 environmental standard.
For this kind of product:
VOCs (in g/L) should not exceed:
Primer or Undercoat
Anti Corrosive Coating
Reflective Wall Coating
Reflective Roof Coating
Other, non-environmental things to consider when choosing a brand of paint are its hiding ability (based on how many coats it takes to cover a darker color), stain and mildew resistance, tendency to fade and ability to hold up to scrubbing. See the Interior Paints report in the March 2009 issue of Consumer Reports for an assessment of conventional and low-VOC paints on these points and others (subscription required).
If you've painted recently with conventional paint and are stuck with
the fumes, do yourself a favor and air the rooms out as thoroughly as
possible. Leave the windows wide open for several days and use a box fan
in a window (well secured) with the air blowing outward.
When you're done with your paint job, take care what you do with any leftovers. Paint that is stored improperly can release fumes -- and also go bad and become unusable. When it's disposed of improperly, it can end up contaminating the water supply. So --
Don't buy more paint than you need for the job at hand. Use this calculator to estimate the right amount.
To store leftovers, cover the paint with plastic, put the cap on top, and turn the can upside down. Label it with the date, color, brand and room it was used for. Then put it in a place away from heat and cold.
Recycle or give away unwanted leftovers or bring them to your town's household hazardous waste collection site.
If all else fails, consult your municipality and the directions on the can for proper disposal. Liquid paint should never be dumped directly in the trash.
Sheryl Eisenberg, a long-time advisor to NRDC, posts a new This Green Life every month. Sheryl makes her home in Tribeca (NYC), wherealong with her children, Sophie and Gabe, and husband, Petershe tries to put her environmental principles into practice. No fooling. Read more about Sheryl.
Color matters. VOCs that may be present in the pigment are not listed on paint labels and websites. (Only VOCs in the base paint are.) Dark colors tend to have more VOCs, so go with light shades to limit your exposure. (This may not apply to natural paints.)
Milk paint, based on casein, a milk protein, has been used for centuries. As it spoils quickly, it must be used right away but is natural and otherwise safe. It's great for rooms where a country or casual antiqued look is the goal.
VOCs outdside & in. Outdoors, VOCs, primarily from vehicles, contribute to smog. Indoors, VOCs in household products cause even worse pollution. Items reponsible, besides paint, include paint thinners, wood preservatives, aerosol sprays, cleansers, moth repellents, air fresheners, hobby supplies and dry-cleaned clothing. Cut down on their use or switch to green versions to improve air quality at home.
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Sheryl Eisenberg is a web developer and writer. With her firm, Mixit Productions (mixitproductions.com), she brought NRDC online in 1996, designed NRDC's first websites, and continues to develop special web features for NRDC. She created and, for several years, wrote the Union of Concerned Scientists' green living column, Greentips, and has designed and contributed content to many nonprofit sites. In between issues of This Green Life, she muses aloud on green issues at thisgreenblog.com.