Paint It . . . Green
Redecorating a room using eco-friendly paints helps make your home—and the environment—a safer place to live.
Three years ago, I bought a house in a transitional neighborhood of Washington, D.C. Formerly abandoned, it came with a price tag that couldn’t be beat. It also came with a lot of work: roof crumbling in, chimney toppling over, balcony falling off.
In the midst of all these major structural repairs, I realized nothing could brighten up my place faster than a fresh coat of paint. Unfortunately, nothing can pollute indoor air quite like it either. Today’s paint may have gotten the lead out, but it’s still a witches’ brew of ingredients.
Of the 15,000 chemicals that can be used in paint’s manufacture, many of these are made with petroleum-based volatile organic compounds (VOCs), including benzene, formaldehyde, kerosene, ammonia, toluene and xyene, which are known toxins. These compounds evaporate readily into the air at room temperature, contribute significantly to poor air quality and can cause serious health problems, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
The effects might be somewhat mild—nausea, dizziness and irritation of the eyes and respiratory tract. But they can also be extreme, causing serious ailments such as kidney damage or cancer. A 2002 study by the National Cancer Institute found that men and women working in painting professions had a “significantly increased” cancer risk.
Depending on the type of paint, this so-called “off-gassing” can last for months, although the most critical time is during application and within the first few days or weeks. “It’s something to think about given that average Americans spend about 90 percent of their time indoors where concentrations of pollutants are often much higher than they are outdoors,” says Michelle Halle Stern of the Delta Institute, which collaborates with various government agencies on projects to reduce ozone-causing emissions in Chicago. In fact, a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) study showed that indoor VOC levels were 1,000 times higher than outdoor levels after painting.
But paint can make its way outside to contaminate the air, too, where—combined with sunlight—the solvents contribute to the formation of ground-level ozone, or smog. More than two-thirds of the 176 million pounds of VOC emissions generated in California come from paints, according to statistics from the California Air Resources Board.
Oil-based paints, used mostly for high-gloss applications needed to minimize mold growth in areas with high moisture, such as the kitchen and bathroom, generally contain more VOCs than water-based latex paints, making up about 25 to 50 percent of the contents, says Maria Mergel of the Washington Toxics Coalition in Seattle. “You also often have to mix oil-based paints with a paint thinner, which is pure solvent and highly toxic,” she adds.
In water-based paints, the VOC content is far less—at 5 to 10 percent. This sounds better, but considering that latex paints make up 85 percent of the interior paint sold in the United States, they still can pack a powerful toxic punch.
So, what’s a redecorator to do? The good news is that today there’s a wide variety of eco-friendly options on the market that address these pollution concerns. But you do have to plan ahead, as they aren’t commonly found on the shelf of your local hardware store and may need to be special ordered.
“Ideally,” says Stern, “you should look for paints that meet three requirements: low VOCs, low fungicides and biocides [added to prevent mildew and preserve paint on the shelf] and natural rather than chemical pigments.”
But buyer beware: A “low VOC” label on the container means that the paint may meet EPA standards but can still contain up to 250 grams per liter of VOCs. It’s also important to be aware that paint toxicity is ranked by how it contributes to smog formation, not indoor air pollution. This means that even paints marketed at zero or low VOC levels may still contain one or more of the toxic heavyweights in the form of biocides and fungicides. Likewise, paint labeled as low biocide may still have high VOC levels.
Stern recommends sticking to water-based paint whenever possible, but if you must use oil-based, look for those that do not contain formaldehyde, mercury compounds or tints containing lead, cadmium and chromium VI in excess of 10 percent. Natural paints, usually made from citrus and other plant ingredients, milk protein—labeled casein—or clay do cost a bit more, “but it’s worth it,” says Stern. “They don’t smell, are better for the environment and your health because most don’t contain petrochemicals, and they don’t produce smog. I wouldn’t chance the health of my family by using anything else.”
As for me, I’m still saving up for that new balcony, but the bedroom’s been painted with nontoxic paint, and because of that, I can sleep a little easier—literally.
Heidi Ridgley is an associate editor for this magazine. For a list of environmentally friendly paint products, see
Using Paint Wisely
- Buy no more paint than you need to reduce the amount of paint that remains after the walls are covered. A good rule of thumb, according to the Washington Toxics Coalition, is a gallon of paint for every 300 to 400 square feet.
- Use only in well-ventilated areas with fans to circulate the air.
- Keep all paint products in their original containers and keep lids on when not in use. Vapors can build up in a matter of seconds.
- Avoid spray painting.
- Don’t wear soft contact lenses around solvents.
- Do wear protective gear such as gloves, masks, goggles and respirators.
- Pregnant women should never paint or even enter a freshly painted room until it has dried and ventilated for at least 72 hours.
- If there’s still paint leftover when your project is finished, find out if your community offers a recycling program. You might also consider donating leftover paint to a friend, neighbor or local community group.
- Never pour unused paint down the drain. If you can’t find a way to recycle or reuse it, dispose of it as hazardous waste. Even water-based paints have some materials that can contaminate groundwater. Many communities offer household hazardous waste disposal sites—sometimes year-round, sometimes once or twice a year.