Understanding Paint Ingredients
Some paints have some surprisingly toxic and environmentally damaging components. While much has been done in the last few years by some paint companies to improve aspects of their paints, many conventional paints remain toxic and are responsible for Painter’s Syndrome and Sick Building Syndrome. Unfortunately, the toxicity and biodiversity impacts of paints on the environment are typically not well understood by homeowners — but they should be.
Paints contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and whitening agents that can have a harmful effect on the human body and our environment. For this reason, never wash your brushes or paint containers down the sink or drain and always paint ventilate rooms when you paint.
The good news is that now less harmful paints are being produced and you have more green alternatives to choose from.
This guide was compiled by David Baggs. He is Technical Director of Ecospecifier Global and CEO and Program Director of Global GreenTag Pty Ltd, the licensed operator of the Global GreenTagCertTM Green Product Certification Program. He is a multi-award winning chartered architect with over 35 years’ experience in green building design, life cycle analysis and product assessment.
Plastic In Paints
Acrylic, PVA, polyurethane and epoxy paints are plastic based, are usually derived from petroleum and are more harmful to the environment than plant-, casein-, cement-, or mineral-based paints.
The best alternative: Plant oil or recycled paints
Some new paints are made using plant oils. These are commonly available in specialty stores, but some ranges are now available in Bunnings and Masters if you look carefully for them. These paints made from plant oils are typically greener solutions than petrochemical ones. Search online for “natural paints Australia”. Plant-based acrylics are not available in Australia yet. Recycled paints are another very good option and there are several locally manufactured paints and at least one texture coating that are zero or low VOC.
Volatile Organic Compounds
Paints contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which have various health impacts depending on the type and quantity of emissions and extent of exposure. Effects range from central nervous system problems like dizziness and loss of concentration to more profound long-term effects such as cancer and, in extreme cases, liver damage.
Paints are generally classified as solvent based, water based or solvent-less. Solvent-based paints contain more VOCs by weight and most water-based acrylic paints contain approximately 6% VOC. While this doesn’t sound like much, it is still too high for human health. Natural oil-based paints can be high in natural VOCs but healthy people can process them.
Low odour paints are not necessarily low VOC although it’s usually a good indicator. Smelly paints are definitely indicative of unhealthy products and its best not to use them. This generally applies to anything that has to be thinned with turpentine or requires multiple components to be mixed together.
The best alternative: Low-VOC paints
- Natural paints: Mixes with no VOCs based on plant oils, lime, cement, silicate mineral and casein (a milk protein).
- Low-VOC paints: Modified, healthier low-VOC acrylic and low-VOC urethane and epoxy paints. (Ask your local paint retailer or search online.)
- Hybrid finishes: For products painted in the factory (like furniture) and wooden or bamboo flooring, a relatively new generation of hybrid finishes such as electron beam (EB) and ultra violet (UV) cured finishes are available. These are solvent-less and don’t have any VOCs in them at all once hardened. (Unfortunately most timber lacquers are usually high VOC, so make sure you ask your retailer about the type of finish before you buy any lacquered or painted products.)
- Powder coating: A solvent-less healthy finish. Typically powder coating is used on metal and fused by heat into a solid finish.
Most of these products are available in Australia. To find and identify natural and low-VOC paints check with suppliers, look for certified labels or go to ecospecifier.com.au.
Durability: Some low–VOC paints may be less durable than conventional paints. Paints based on plants, lime and casein are not as resistant to scrubbing as petroleum-based plastics like acrylic or polyurethanes so are harder to clean. Lime-, cement- and silicate mineral-based paints feel rougher and are more absorbent than acrylic paints when used inside, but are highly durable and great for external surfaces. Plant based decking oils can be just as durable as synthetic decking oils, although the deeper the colour, the longer any decking oil will last. Avoid use clear paints on external surfaces as they will often not last more than 12 months without needing recoating.
Painting with low–VOC paints: Sometimes application techniques may be different to applying conventional paint — look for instructions on the tin.
Is there such things as “no VOC” paints?
There’s really no such thing – manufacturers should really claim, no ‘added VOCs’. Many have been caught out with such claims and when they are tested they reveal there VOCs, very low but still there. David Baggs
Pigments and Whitening Agents
A number of paint components impact on land and marine ecosystems because of the way they’re extracted from the earth or from when paint is washed down stormwater drains.
- Pigments: These may contain heavy metals like chromium, cadmium and cobalt. Heavy metals accumulate in humans and in nature and build up in marine sediment and the food chain. Pigments with heavy metals can be avoided by careful selection of paint brands, by asking manufacturers to provide this information and by seeking out the information online (search for “paint” on ecospecifier.com.au).
- Whitening agents: These create opacity in paint and are harmful to the environment.
- Titanium dioxide is the most common whitening agent and is often a large percentage of paints. It is obtained by beach and sand mining processes that harm coastal areas and islands.
- Zinc oxide, another whitening agent, is highly toxic to marine organisms, and also accumulates in sediment and organisms, leading to the pollution of our waterways.
The best alternative: Calcium carbonate
Calcium carbonate is a whitening agent that has no health or biodiversity impacts so is the preferred whitening agent for paints. Paints that use calcium carbonate rather than titanium dioxide are not easily identifiable but they are available. Another less preferable alternative is zinc oxide.
For more detailed information about specific paints see ecospecifier.com.au or click here to go straight to a selection of paints.
The Ecospecifier-Eco-Priority Guide to Paint provides information on how to decide which criteria are most important to you (e.g. greenhouse impacts, human health impacts, pollution impacts) for any given product and application. by presenting the key issues about what makes a product “green” or not. As a general rule the greater number of beneficial features a product has, the stronger its environmental and health performance (although to tell the full story it’s best to refer to a life cycle analysis (LCA) assessment, e.g. the Global GreenTag eco-label).
Global GreenTagCertTM works with ecospecifier.com.au to make your choice of green products simple. Using a simple Bronze, Silver, Gold and Platinum rating system it helps you compare products’ health and sustainability. You can be assured that all GreenTag certified products are healthy for your family and better for the planet.
Global GreenTagCertTM Certification is your mark of confidence when selecting eco-products. You can trust GreenTag to deliver the healthy and green performance you want in your home.
It is an Australian-developed system with a global focus, which also meets rigorous European and international standards. The program is an Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) approved National Certification Mark that uses life cycle analysis to certify green building materials and a wide range of other products and technologies that looks at the impacts of the products from cradle to cradle .
The Global GreenTagCertTM program is independently operated from Brisbane and is recognised by both Green Building Council (GBC) of Australia and New Zealand GBC. It certifies products from some of the world’s largest and most iconic green companies, and also works with many emerging local companies to help their green products stand on both the local and world stages.
- Feature image credit to ©iStock.com/gmnicholas