Choosing less harmful paint
The production of conventional paint involves the use of hundreds of chemicals and the finished product often contains toxins such as heavy metals and volatile organic compounds (VOCs), some of which may be carcinogenic. After application, these paints continue to emit harmful fumes for at least six months, and often much longer.
Fortunately, a wide range of less harmful products is now readily available, so you can choose paint that is better for the environment and for you. The main alternatives to conventional paint are listed below, with the safest options first.
- Milk paint:A mixture of casein, a protein found in milk, and earth pigments, milk paint has a smooth matte finish suitable for interior walls and furnishings.
- Lime wash: Made from lime and natural pigments, lime wash gives walls – exterior and interior – a soft, weathered look.
- Natural/organic paints: These are usually made from vegetable and mineral extracts bound with natural oils or resins. Some natural paints still contain conventional pigments such as titanium oxide and natural solvents that can be low-level irritants.
- VOC-free paints: These have the same make-up as conventional paints, but exclude the harmful VOCs. They tend to be expensive.
- Low-VOC paints: These are made from petrochemicals, but with reduced levels of VOCs. They may still contain harmful chemical additives.
Painting the eco-friendly way
Here are some suggestions for how you can protect the environment and your health while painting your home.
- When an all-natural paint isn’t an option, try to use paints that are low in or free of VOCs. This is especially important when painting indoors.
- Keep in mind that although water-based (acrylic) paints are generally safer than oil-based paints, they can still contain numerous harmful chemical additives.
- If you can achieve a smooth surface with minimal preparation, paint over old paint rather than removing it.
- Wear a dust mask when sanding to avoid inhaling dust from old paints or varnishes.
- To remove old paint, use a water-based, solvent-free paint stripper, a hot-air gun, or a scraper and plenty of elbow grease. Avoid conventional chemical paint strippers as they contain hazardous substances such as methylene chloride and dichloromethane, which are both thought to be carcinogenic.
- Be wary of old paints containing lead, which was used as a drying agent in paint prior to 1950 and is now known to be highly toxic. If you are unsure of what you are dealing with, get a paint fragment tested by a professional or buy a testing kit from a hardware store. If the paint is in good condition, it is often best to leave it in place; otherwise have a specialist remove it.
- To wash down a wall for painting, use a solution of washing soda and water. Add 125 millilitres (1/2 cup) of washing soda to 500 millilitres (2 cups) of water for a regular solution. For a mild solution, add just 15 millilitres (1 tablespoon) of washing soda to every 500 millilitres (2 cups) of water; for a stronger solution, add 250 millilitres (1 cup) of washing soda to every 500 millilitres (2 cups) of water.
- Use a special painter’s mask when painting. These are available from hardware stores and are different from dust masks, which should not be used as they will trap fumes near your mouth and nose.
- Whatever type of paint you are using, make sure the room you are working in is well ventilated. If possible, air the room for a week before using it after painting.
By choosing less harmful paint and following eco-friendly practices, you can enjoy a beautifully painted house while also helping to protect the environment!