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Paint and the planet

Earth friendly paints?

Yes, another product that can have a negative impact on the environment - house paint. While there are more earth friendly alternatives to toxic paints, it seems very few, if any, durable products suitable for internal and external walls can be called truly green.

What environmental problems are caused by paint?

Years ago, lead in paints was the major problem, but in most country the use of lead based paints is now banned. But, there are other nasties lurking in the can.

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are produced by many products, paints included and VOC's are continued to be emitted after the paint has dried.

Some some volatile organic compounds are known to cause cancer in humans and animals; but common symptoms of exposure are ear, eye, nose and throat irritation, headaches, skin allergies and dizziness. Anything that can do that type of thing to you just can't be good for the environment generally.

Even some less toxic VOC's can also combine to create highly toxic volatile organic compounds.

VOCs released into the environment can contaminate soil and groundwater. Vapours of VOCs escaping into the air contribute to air pollution by reacting with nitrous oxides to form ozone.

While more ozone might be seen as a good thing, it's only of benefit in the upper atmosphere. Ozone in the lower atmosphere can cause respiratory issues in man and animals and even damage crops.

Volatile organic compounds also prolong the life of methane in the atmosphere - a greenhouse gas contributing to global warming.

Aside from VOC's, some paints contain ethylene glycol; a carcinogen, anti-bacterial agemts, mold inhibitors, toxic binding agents, and formaldehyde - ingredients that may not even be mentioned on the can.

Are there truly earth friendly paints available?

There are many paints emerging on the market that are very low in VOC's or contain alternative volatile organic compounds known not to cause cancer; but you need to be careful. Some manufacturers replace the nastier VOC's with ammonia and acetone - also human and environmental poisons.

The challenge for manufacturers is that it's very difficult to remove all VOC’s in paint. A paint with volatile organic compounds in the range of 5 g/l or below can be labeled "Zero VOC"; but it still contains these chemicals.

According to the research I've done, even milk based or citrus oil based paints need potentially toxic additives to be stable or prevent spoiling and the earth friendly ingredients themselves can react in conjunction with the other paint ingredients and the air to form toxic compounds.

The problem is that we expect so much from paint. When I whack a coat of paint on the wall, I never want to have to do it again, well at least for a decade, and the paints which have the least impact on the environment can be very expensive and tend not to have the durability of their nasty counterparts.

If you are able to; avoid the need for paint wherever you can; use other materials. Natural brick is great and earth friendly wood panelling looks wonderful in a home. Of course, this is not always a realistic solution for everyone; so do shop around for zero VOC paints, study MSDS (Material Safety Data Sheets), investigate the ingredients and go for the lesser of the evils.

A great database for looking up chemicals commonly used in products and gaining an insight on their impact on human health and the environment is ScoreCard.


Michael Bloch
Green Living Tips.com
Green Living Tips is an online resource powered by renewable energy offering a wide variety of earth friendly tips, green guides, advice and environment related news to help consumers and business reduce costs, consumption and environmental impact on the planet.