A new coat of paint or stain can make a room feel fresh again, but it often has the opposite effect on the air quality in your home. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), paints, stains and other architectural coatings produce about 9 percent of the volatile organic compound (VOC) emissions from consumer and commercial products, making them the second-largest source of VOC emissions after automobiles.
VOCs can cause respiratory, skin and eye irritation; headaches; nausea; muscle weakness; and more serious ailments and diseases, according to the EPA. Formaldehyde, a VOC commonly found in paint, is a probable carcinogen. The EPA has found that indoor concentrations of VOCs are regularly up to ten times as high as outdoor concentrations, and can climb up to a thousand times as high as outdoor concentrations when you are applying paint.
Low-and no-VOC paints may also contain other compounds that affect air quality. While some of these are known and can be avoided, others are not. Manufacturers are not required to disclose all the chemicals used in their products; some ingredients are deemed proprietary information or are used in such small quantities that they do not have to be reported.
Beyond VOCs, many paints are made with toxic substances and chemicals that come from nonrenewable resources or are energy-intensive or polluting to produce, so even no-VOC paints and stains can affect the environment.
COMPOSITION OF PAINT
Paint has three main components: Pigment gives it color; the binder or resin makes the pigment stick when the paint is applied and forms a solid layer of paint; and the carrier or solvent keeps the paint in liquid form and evaporates once the paint is exposed to air. Other additives are sometimes used to thicken paint (such as chalk, which is nontoxic) or give it characteristics such as mold resistance (which requires toxic materials).
Pigment contributes to a paint’s emissions in a small but significant way. Much of the latex and oil paint sold in stores comes as white base paint, and colorants (composed of pigments in liquid form, soaps and sometimes solvents) are added to create the desired color at the time of purchase. Because pigments add some amount of VOCs and sometimes toxins to the base paint, actual VOC emissions will almost always be higher than those quoted on the base paint. The deeper the hue, the more pigment needed, and therefore the more VOCs the colored paint contains. If you must paint in deep, dark shades, consider purchasing paint from a no-or low-VOC line that includes no-or low-VOC pigments.
Toxic substances used in a pigment should be listed on its Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS). Avoid cadmium, chromium, mercury and other heavy metals. Titanium dioxide, which gives white latex and oil paints their base color and accounts for about 25 percent of these paints by weight, is very energy intensive to produce, so paint containing it creates a certain amount of energy-related pollution before accounting for the binder and carrier.