Pleasantly Pink and Little Boy Blue May Be Affecting IAQ

by Dave on August 22, 2009

by Matthew Peterson

A few articles ago we discussed IAQ (indoor air quality) as it related to air filters. There is something else that is in your home that, for years, may give off potentially harmful pollutants. Those are paints and finishes that contain VOCs. Yep, another acronym….didn’t know that you would have to adopt an entirely new vernacular did you?

Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) have a high vapor pressure and low water solubility. The EPA defines VOCs as, and you will love this definition, any organic compound that participates in atmospheric photochemical reactions except those designated by the EPA as having negligible photochemical reactivity. Since I only know what two of the words in the previous sentence mean, let’s look at it this way: VOCs are anything that can vaporize or evaporate under normal conditions. Essentially, if you think about opening a can of gasoline – the fumes that result are VOCs. Until recently, most manufacturers thought that these chemicals were essential to the performance of paint and finishes. Now that the focus of many industries has converted under the pressures of our greening (not green washing) economy, these new high performance paints and finishes are not only less harmful to our environment and us – they are just as durable and quite cost effective.

The benefits are immense. From a straight environmental standpoint, these low or no VOC products reduce landfill, groundwater and ozone depleting contaminants. From the indoor air quality affecting animals and humans, the reduced toxin output or “off gassing” will reduce allergies, one’s potential to get SBS (sick building syndrome) and one right enjoy cleaner air. These finishes and paints do not produce the odors that we have, unfortunately, become accustomed to when we paint a room – no more having to have the windows open for three weeks after you paint a bedroom in the dead of winter. The clean up and the disposal of these products in a safe and effective way is, too, greatly simplified.

The three basic types of finishes that you will find are Low VOC, No VOC and Natural Paints. Starting with Low VOC paints and stains, we are discussing finishes that contain no or low levels of heavy metals and formaldehyde (turns out it’s not just for frogs in Biology class…). There are differing thresholds based on various gram per liter ratios. For paints and stains, the product must be below 200 g/L and varnishes below 300 g/L. To meet the Green Seal Standard, the manufacturer must be below 50 g/L for flat and 150 g/L for non flat (satin, semi-gloss, etc).

To be a No VOC finish the product must have less than 5 g/L for color less and less than 10 g/L for tinted. Compared to Low VOC, you can see the marked difference in the amounts. Several of the popular name brand paint companies have a product line that is No VOC qualified. You will find that these are more dollars per gallon but the benefits described above, in my opinion, far out weigh the cost. From a percentage standpoint a few extra bucks a gallon to essentially eliminate off-gassing is well worth it.

Natural paints and finishes are the most environmentally progressive finish or coating available. These types of products basically harken back to the beginning of how people first created color and finishes – they are produced naturally and are readily found in our surroundings. These raw ingredients contain products like dyes made from plants, ground minerals, clay, chalk, and milk casein. As opposed to creating unpleasant ‘window opening’ odors, these finishes produce fragrances associated with essential oils and citrus…imagine that – painting a room and enjoying the smell while you are doing it and, even better, when you stand back to admire your work, it smells great too.

Now that we have established the background of these products, where do we go from here? The best method is to make sure that you read the labels of the cans and talk to the helpful hardware person. You should look for VOC content and use the information above as a guide – make sure the count is below 200 g/L and aim lower! As a good rule of thumb, if you see any mention of EPA, OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Organization) or DOT (Department of Transportation) labels or symbols on the can, run – errr, move on to another product. If the product must be registered with one of these organizations that means that they contain toxic ingredients that must be monitored. After you have selected a product that works, be sure to only buy the amount that you need. I have always done this because custom paint colors are expensive…but there are real environmental factors as well. A good rule of thumb here is that a gallon covers 400 square feet. So take the length(s) of the wall(s) that you are painting and multiply that by the height – the yield of that math divided by 400 results in the amount of gallons you need. Whatever leftovers you do have, seal the can and store upside down – that will prevent any air getting into the can and keep the finish fresh and not allow any evaporation of toxins. Regardless of how “safe” the coverings are that you purchase, circulate air throughout the room that you are working in. This will move around and dissipate the chemicals which results in less lingering chemicals in the air.

Armed with this data, it is time for you to pick a room or rooms that need paint and head down to the paint store to try it out. Painting a fresh color on the walls or ceiling of a room can transform it – plus it is an inexpensive way to liven up your look – be bold and go for it. Plus, I find it entertaining to look at the names of the colors – it may be the coolest job next to writing for Hallmark….or Coastal Sussex for that matter.

This column first appeared in Coastal Sussex Weekly, July 9, 2009.

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