July 23, 2015
How Do You Choose a Paint That Will Let the Room Breathe Healthy?

Good day, my studies. Please: sit.

Now that the walls are finished and we’re about to begin decorating our LivingWise house, we should probably take a moment to discuss painting.

When I was a clean living neophyte, I was surprised to learn that the choice of paint holds consequences that reach far beyond aesthetics. Some paints can have a negative effect on your health.

True, we no longer use lead-based pigments, so no worries about lead-poisoning and its associated birth defects if you are building a new home. But there are still hidden dangers in some commercially-available paints, in the form of volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

What are VOCs?

You’re familiar with many of them, even if you don’t know it. VOCs are hydrocarbons that have a very low boiling point — they evaporate at normal room temperature or below. Most of them have a strong odor.

A lot of them are innocuous and quite pleasant to smell. Many VOCs occur naturally — they’re used as chemical signals by living organisms. Any time you smell a flower or a fresh piece of fruit, you are sensing non-harmful VOCs.

Some have medicinal qualities or practical applications. Isopropyl (“rubbing”) alcohol is used to sterilize surfaces. Acetone is the basis of fingernail polish remover. And acetic acid (vinegar) is used in cooking and cleaning.

But some — especially petroleum-derived industrial chemicals and solvents — are highly flammable and can be quite harmful if a person is exposed to them for long periods of time. Gasoline, butane (lighter fluid), turpentine and kerosene are some examples. Benzene, a known cancer-causing agent (and by-product of car exhaust and cigarette tobacco smoke), is another.

What do VOCs have to do with paint?

Unfortunately, a lot.

You know that freshly-painted smell that a new home can have? Smells wonderful, doesn’t it? Well, a lot of that “pleasant” odor comes from the evaporation of harmful VOCs.

That freshly-painted smell? A lot of it is attributable to the evaporation of formaldehyde — also known as embalming fluid. Formaldehyde has been identified by the EPA as a “probable carcinogen.”

In fact, Johns Hopkins study found that commercially-available oil-based house paints can contain as many as 300 toxic chemicals and 150 known carcinogens.

Now do you understand why there is so much at stake when you choose a paint for your home? The wisest choice — and the choice we’re sticking with for our LW house — is to use a low-VOC paint.

What are low-VOC paints?

These are paints that have been manufactured using fewer harmful VOCs. Although they do still emit some harmful VOCs, they do so at a reduced rate.

When choosing a low-VOC paint, look closely at the can. There should be a VOC concentration listed on the label. The threshold for a “low-VOC” paint is generally less than 50 grams of VOCs per liter of paint; the lower the number, the better.

Overall, latex-based paints in the lighter colors, with “matte” or “flat” finishes tend to be lower in harmful VOC concentration than alkyd-based, darker and glossier paints. Just remember, labels don’t include the VOCs that can be present in pigments added at the store. If you have the paint department mix in additional shades, you’ll likely increase the VOC concentration of your paint.

“Zero-VOC” paints are available with concentrations lower than 5 grams per paint liter. They’re typically more expensive, but worth the spend.

If you want to compare paints before you buy, VOC concentrations are usually listed on individual paint manufacturers’ websites. Or, check out greenseal.org, which maintain a list of low-VOC certified paints.

Want to see how we painted our LivingWise house?

Check back later this week. Shannon and the crew are painting as we speak and they’ll be posting a video entry soon.

In the meantime, be conscientious in your paint choices, my studies. Remember, you’re not just trying to make your home a pretty home. You’re trying to make it a healthy home, too.