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  Sierra Magazine
  March/April 2005
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Sierra Magazine
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The Hidden Life of...House Paint
by Sidney Stevens

There's nothing like a fresh coat of paint to spruce up lifeless rooms. But there's more to consider than color and finish if you want to minimize environmental and health concerns and maximize delight in your new decor. Fortunately, today's paints are safer and more earth-friendly than ever before. Lead is no longer used as an additive, and worries about waste and dirty air have prompted tighter rules on the pollutants in paint.

One of the biggest remaining problems is the volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, that off-gas while you paint — and sometimes for months or years afterward. Outside, VOCs like vinyl chloride and benzene react with sunlight to form ground-level ozone, or smog. The EPA estimates that the 1.2 billion gallons of paint Americans use each year account for 9 percent of total VOC emissions from consumer and commercial products. (Other sources include wood preservatives, aerosol sprays, air fresheners, cleansers, and disinfectants.)

Most VOCs in paint come from the synthetic solvents that give it a usable consistency and evaporate after application — the source of that fresh-paint smell. Water-based latex paints are generally lower in VOCs than oil-based ones, but many still contain high levels because of fungicide and pigment additives. For most people, short-term exposure to VOCs — whether through inhalation or skin contact — isn't likely to cause lasting health damage, though it may irritate eyes and skin or cause dizziness, headaches, or nausea.

That's why you should always paint with the windows open. But even limited VOC exposure can be dangerous to people with multiple chemical sensitivities, respiratory problems, or weakened immune systems.

Rinsing brushes and trays outside — rather than in an interior drain where paint residue is discharged to a sewage-treatment plant — can wash heavy-metal ingredients like cadmium (a known neurotoxin) into streams and rivers via stormwater systems. Likewise, wet paint that's just tossed in the trash often ends up in landfills, where it can leach into groundwater.

Painting an older home can pose its own set of problems, as many still contain lead-based paint. A health hazard that can cause brain damage in children, lead was banned as an ingredient in 1978. Though relatively safe if intact, an old coat of lead-based paint may emit dangerous dust when sanded or scraped. Like most paint hazards, lead risks can be minimized with a little forethought and better painting and cleanup techniques.

What Next?

PLAN AHEAD: Avoid waste — and save money — by calculating how much paint you'll need beforehand. Choose neutral shades that you can live with for years. Lighter colors emit significantly less VOCs because they require fewer solvents to blend pigments. They also brighten rooms, cutting lighting needs.

PREP THE HOUSE: Before painting, clear out rugs and furniture that might absorb any off-gassed VOCs. If you're remodeling a pre-1978 house, the EPA recommends hiring a professional to remove lead-based paint, as well as erecting temporary barriers (such as plastic sheeting) to prevent lead dust from drifting into other rooms.

BUY THE RIGHT PAINT: Most manufacturers now offer paints that meet the EPA's "low-VOC" standards (250 grams per liter for flat interior colors and 380 grams per liter for glossy ones), but they may still contain non-ozone-forming VOCs and other indoor-air toxics. Paints with the Green Seal label contain less VOCs (no more than 50 grams per liter for flat paints and 150 grams per liter or less for other finishes), as well as fewer toxics.

You can avoid these hazards altogether with mineral- and plant-based paints made from ingredients such as lime, milk, clay, and egg yolks. Some brands are available in stores, but most must be ordered from the manufacturer. Though safer and more eco-friendly than commercial paints, natural paints are usually costlier and may require multiple coats for good coverage. Some natural paints are prone to mold and mildew because they don't contain fungicides; others, like lime wash, actually kill mold spores. To avoid mold problems, use natural paints quickly rather than keeping them in storage.

CLEAN UP GREEN: After wiping excess latex paint from brushes and rollers on newspaper, rinse them in an interior drain so the wastes will be treated at a sewage plant. Store leftover paint to use for touch-ups. For disposal of small amounts, the National Paint and Coatings Association suggests pouring latex paint onto a paper bag to dry, then tossing it with the regular trash and recycling the can once the residue has dried. Oil-based paints are considered hazardous wastes; call your municipal waste authority for proper disposal methods.

RECYCLE: More than 15 states and some companies now recycle leftover latex paint and resell it. Contact your waste authority for nearby recycling centers. While recycled paint is often 50 percent cheaper than new — sometimes as low as $1 per can — quality and VOC levels vary. Since recycled paints are a mix of colors, they tend to be available mostly in neutral tones like gray or beige. Another option is reprocessed or reformulated paint — a combination of recycled and new with some of the detriments and benefits of each.


Sidney Stevens is a freelance environmental and health writer in Pennsylvania.

On The Web: For painting resources, go to www.sierraclub.org/sierra/paint.

Reader feedback: Sierra answers a reader's questions about septic systems and vacuuming lead paint.


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