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April 01, 2010

Painting spells

The nose knows as far as paint VOCs are concerned

L. Sara Bysterveld

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To some, the smell of fresh paint can carry a sentimental value — just like the smell of a new car. But take heed of what you sniff. That fresh paint smell — thanks to volatile organic compounds (VOCs) — could be making you sick while also creating smog.

Since the ‘80s, it’s not lead content that is the concern in paints (though paint older than that should be tested before being stirred), it is VOCs such as benzene, toluene, ethyl benzene, urea, formaldehyde, ethylene glycol and xylene.

The term VOC refers to a compound that vaporizes at room temperature, and they can be natural or synthetic. While not every VOC is a health hazard — the scent of pine or citrus comes from these compounds — there are many that are. When a VOC is harmful, it can cause damage within the human body as well as to the environment.

As Andrea Jones of Raising Spaces, an organization dedicated to promoting both consumers and the home building industry with information on green building materials and practices,  explains, harmful VOCs can damage ear, throat and nose tissues, as well as cause headaches, and may be carcinogenic or linked to cancer.

According to the Environmental Defense Toxic Nation Website, inhaling VOCs may also be responsible for birth defects, impaired kidney and liver function, and damage to the reproductive and neurological systems.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that indoor pollution from these compounds is responsible for more than 11,000 deaths per year in their country due to cancers, kidney failure and respiratory problems.

“You will always have something of a new paint odour,” explains Parvin Kassam, senior air quality consultant for AirVironment Canada. But sometimes the smell remains heavy even with good ventilation, or even becomes stronger.

Kassam recommends consumers “really do their homework,” look for zero or low-VOC paints and ensure proper ventilation during and after painting.
But while low- or no-VOC paints are part of the solution, finding a truthful claim of such properties requires some research.

Some facts that make it tricky? First, there are different acceptable levels in different types of paints — glossy paint that is rated low-VOC will have more of the compounds than a low-VOC matte paint, for instance. Because solvents are the main carrier of the compounds, paints with higher levels of solvents, like glossy paints, have higher levels of the smelly chemicals.

Another trick to watch for is low-VOC paint in which the VOC level is actually raised when the pigments are mixed. Some paints will be advertised as low-VOC and are in fact, before the colours are blended. However, since the VOCs are in the pigment, once the pigment is added the level has changed.

Both Jones and Kassam offer tips for choosing a paint that will be gentle on the environment as well as your health and the health of your family.

First, alkyd and oil paints are more toxic; according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, they contain up to 60 per cent VOCs. Oil paints have the added disadvantage of being derived from petroleum products. Meanwhile, according to The Natural Paint Book by Lynn Edwards and Julia Lawless, the manufacture of polyvinyl acetate and acrylic paints  creates 10 to 30 cans of waste for every can of paint.

When researching paint brands, Jones recommends consumers look for specific environmental claims, certifications such as Green Seal and GREENGUARD or awards. Study their website and literature — if they’re offering a legitimately eco-friendly option, they will include plenty of facts on what makes their paint superior.

In the store, Kassam recommends finding a retailer who is reputable and knowledgeable (this is one of those situations where recommendations from friends or other trusted sources are great). “If they try to skirt an issue, call them on it — you’re not there to make the salesman happy, it’s your health,” she says. “If you can’t get a guarantee of some sort, then there is something wrong.”

Kassam also recommends testing out paint before deciding. Take it home, paint a piece of drywall and see how it smells over a period of a couple of weeks.

Finding Green Paint Near You
Check out http://www.raisingspaces.com or http://www.ecodesignsolutions.ca for help with choosing a paint, or try Riva’s the Eco-store in Calgary. Some brands to watch for include Farrow & Ball, American Pride, Bioshield, Horizon, Auro and Mythic. Want someone else to do the painting for you? Try Green Planet Painting.

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