A fresh coat of paint is an easy and inexpensive way to change the look of your home. In a day, you can make a room go from dull to dazzling. I remember when we bought our house — the bathrooms were painted a shade of Pepto-Bismol pink that made everyone sick. We were so happy to paint them bright white with soothing pale green accents. Walking into the repainted rooms always makes me smile.
Still, there are health concerns about paint, especially the fumes. When paint is exposed to air, it releases invisible gases called volatile organic compounds, commonly known as VOCs. These VOCs can linger in your environment much longer than a day. Many VOCs contribute to air pollution and can affect your health. If painting is on your list of chores, it’s important to know the facts about paint odors and steps you can take to minimize any risks.
What are the concerns about VOCs?
Some of the VOCs in paint pollute the air and can affect your health in a number of ways by causing:
- breathing problems
- eye, nose, and throat irritation
In the long-term, VOCs may damage the liver, kidneys, and central nervous system. VOCs also may cause cancer to develop.
There are hundreds and hundreds of VOCs. Animal studies have shown that some VOCs in paint can cause cancer in animals. Some VOCs are linked to cancer in humans, too, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). For others, the research hasn’t been done.
VOCs of concern include:
- Formaldehyde, which is added to latex (water-based) paints as a preservative or fungicide. This strong-smelling chemical is on the EPA’s official carcinogen list, which means it’s associated with an increased risk of cancer in people. It also can damage your immune system and irritate your nose and lungs.
- Propylene glycol and glycol ethers, liquid chemicals that together are referred to as PGEs. PGEs give off low levels of VOCs and are considered a healthier substitute for high-VOC oil-based paints and solvents. Still, a Swedish study showed that children who slept in bedrooms that were painted around the time of their birth were two to four times more likely to have allergies or asthma than children living in houses where no painting had taken place. The painted bedrooms had 63% higher levels of PGE fumes than other rooms in the home. More research is needed to understand any links between PGEs and allergies and asthma.
- Phthalates. These man-made chemicals are added to paints to make them easier to spread. They’re also found in many other products, including many plastics. Phthalates can disrupt how estrogen and other hormones act in the body and throw off the body’s hormonal balance by blocking or mimicking hormones. Because estrogen can make hormone-receptor-positive breast cancer develop and grow, many women choose to limit their exposure to these chemicals that can act like estrogen and other hormones.
It’s important to know that the possible long-term risks of VOCs are known to affect only some people who are exposed to high levels of paint vapors for long periods of time, such as professional painters.
Still, if you’re looking to do everything you can to keep your risk of breast cancer as low as it can be, it makes sense to avoid VOCs in paint as much as you can. The hazards of chemical exposures depend on a lot of things including amount of exposure (dose), frequency of exposure, duration of exposure, and age when exposed. In this and other TPLG expert columns, we look at things in your life that go in, on, and around you. Whenever there’s a significant concern coming out of the lab or from human studies, we want to help you make the best choices. If something may pose a hazard, in the absence of solid research in people, we lean on the Precautionary Principle. Basically it means that it’s better to be safe than sorry. Our goal is to help you make the best choices for you and your family.
Healthier paint options
In 1998, the EPA passed regulations to reduce the amount of VOCs released by paint. These regulations limit VOCs to 250 grams per liter (g/L) in standard flat white paint. They limit VOCs for other finishes, such as eggshell or gloss, to 380 g/L. Color (pigments or tints) can add additional VOCs; darker colors tend to have higher VOC levels.
If you want to limit your exposure to VOCs in paint, it’s fairly easy to do. When you’re picking out paint, look for brands labeled “low-VOC” or “no-VOC” and that are green certified. They’re available at almost all stores that sell paint. Depending on the store, you may have to ask a salesperson to point them out to you.
Low-VOC or no-VOC paints have fewer VOCs than standard paint. To be labeled low-VOC, paints must contain fewer than 50 g/L; to be labeled zero-VOC or no-VOC, paints must contain fewer than 5 g/L. It’s important to know that these labels are for the white base paint only. Adding color can increase the VOC level in these paints unless the manufacturer also says it uses a zero-VOC tinting system. Read the label and ask the salesperson about the VOC level of the specific color or tint you want.
There are many types of green certifications that help ensure that these paints actually are low-VOC or no-VOC. Some companies certify themselves while others are certified by independent or trade groups. The EPA doesn’t offer a green certification for paint. Each certification is different, but green paints usually give off fewer VOCs and meet higher standards for environmental protection. They also tend to contain fewer chemicals of concern.
Independent green certifications include: Green Seal, Master Painters Institute (MPI) Green Performance Standard, GREENGUARD, and Green Wise. These certifications tend to limit VOCs to 50 g/L for flat paint and usually include pigments in the limits.
The GREENGUARD certification is much stricter than the others, limiting all paints to 0.0005 g/L. You can visit the websites of these certification programs to learn about their specific standards and to see lists of certified paints.
Some green-certified paints say they have no phthalates or formaldehyde. Others say they have no carcinogens (no cancer-causing agents). But keep in mind that certifications don’t completely eliminate all VOCs. In particular, if you’re using a paint that doesn’t make specific claims, it could still contain VOCs of concern such as benzene or PGEs.
Other tips to make painting as healthy as possible
When you’re trying to minimize any risks that come with painting, it can help to keep these things in mind:
- In general, the amount of VOCs given off by latex (water-based) paints is much lower than oil-based paints. Interior paints (paints made to be used indoors) tend to give off fewer VOCs than then exterior paints (paints made to be used outside). Never use exterior paint inside.
- Spray paints release more VOCs than most paint that you brush or roll on. Also, the very small particles in spray paint can get deep in the lungs and cause breathing problems. Because of these issues, try to avoid spray paint, including non-toxic formulations. If you have to use it, make sure you wear a respiratory mask, are in a place with good ventilation, and never use spray paint indoors.
- Be very careful when you use paint strippers or specialty finish paints (such as varnish). These products may give off high levels of VOCs and may contain other chemicals of concern. Safer alternatives are water- or vegetable-based rather than chemical based. For example, soy- or benzyl alcohol-based strippers are a healthier option than methylene chloride-based paint strippers. You also can use mechanical methods such as sanding to strip paint. Just be sure to wear goggles and a respiratory mask to keep paint chips out of your eyes and lungs.
- Make sure that that any paint you’re stripping isn’t lead-based. Homes built as recently as 1978 could contain lead paint. If your home is older, you should assume that any existing paint could contain lead. Lead paint in good condition usually isn’t a problem and you can repaint over it. Don’t try to remove lead paint yourself. Scraping or sanding lead paint can create large amounts of lead dust that can cause lead poisoning.
- Avoid using paint that’s more than 10 to 15 years old. Many water-based paints, including interior paints, used mercury, a heavy metal, as a fungicide until 1990. Lead, another heavy metal, was banned from paints in 1978. Long-term exposure to heavy metals has been linked to serious health problems including cancer and damage to the nervous system, kidneys, and other organs.
- Don’t trust odor alone. Low odor isn’t always a sign of low toxicity. If you smell a chemical, then you know you’re inhaling it, but some chemicals don’t have an odor even at harmful levels. Read the label. Some brands of paint that say “no odor” are specially formulated to be low-VOC. But other brands may say “no odor,” but still have high VOC levels because the manufacturer has used VOCs that don’t have a noticeable scent.
- Look for paints that guarantee high performance AND reduced risk. Some green certifications include performance tests, such as coverage and durability of the paint. This is important because painting less frequently also reduces your exposure to VOCs.
- As an alternative to conventional paint, you may want to consider paints that use natural materials, such as plant oils, milk casein, clay, lime, and natural pigments. You may have to do some research to find these paints. Because they’re made by small companies, they may not go through a green certification process. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find a good one-stop resource for these natural paints.
Safer painting practices
Besides using lower VOC paints, there are other things you can do to reduce any risks from painting:
- Buy only as much paint as you think you need. Even closed containers can emit VOCs, so it’s better if you don’t have to store leftover paint. Use a paint calculator to figure out how much is enough.
- Use all of the protective gear recommended on the label. This can mean gloves, goggles, and a respirator with the proper filter. (Dust masks don’t keep out solvent fumes.)
- Keep exposure to paint fumes at a minimum during pregnancy, especially during the first trimester. Evidence for possible harm to the baby is very limited, but it doesn’t hurt to be careful. At least two studies have found a possible link between congenital heart disease and other birth defects in women who were exposed to paint fumes during pregnancy.
- Ventilate rooms during and after painting. This includes opening all windows for ventilation, using exhaust fans to pull inside air outside, and taking frequent fresh air breaks. Remember, even low- or no-emission paints may release some VOCs. The most VOCs are given off when paint is being applied and is still wet. As the paint dries, VOC emission goes down. But it can take up to 7 days before paint stops releasing VOCs. If you can, it makes sense to avoid spending a lot of time in a freshly painted room for the first week after it’s painted. If you paint your bedroom, for example, plan to sleep in another room for a week until the paint stops giving off VOCs.
- Dispose of paint properly. You can put empty latex paint cans in your regular trash. Oil-based paints need to go to hazardous waste collection programs. Depending on where you live, you might be able to donate your extra paint to a community program.