Painting Safe

Environmental Alternatives for the Chemically Sensitive–and the Chemically Concerned

If you live in a house built before 1920, chances are that the lead paint that coated its walls left a toxic legacy. Although today’s paints have gotten the lead out, they’re still a witches’ brew. According to Green Alternatives magazine, there are about 15,000 chemicals that can be used in the manufacture of paint, and many of these are made with volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that send toxic fumes into the air. Paint isn’t generic anymore; it comes in a bewildering variety of forms that merit paying close attention to the label.

Chemically sensitive homeowners and those concerned about indoor air quality can be cheered by the relative wide range of options for interior use. But you have to plan ahead. Most commercial paint is high in anti-mildew fungicides and “biocides” (added as a preservative to increase shelf life). And oil-based paints, which take a long time to “cure,” contain up to 60 percent chemical solvents (compared to less than five percent for water-based types). Low-biocide paint is available, but it’s not likely to be on the shelf at the local hardware store and needs to be special-ordered. Some low-biocide brands have to be used quickly, so don’t order until you’re ready to begin work.

Not all claims should be accepted at face value, however. John Pruitt, an owner of Seattle’s Best Paint Company, says that some ‘low-biocide’ paint still has plenty of other offgassing VOCs, “enough so it’s not really any better than commercial paint.” Some specialized brands have the triple benefit of being low-biocide, low in VOCs and colored with natural pigments. Best Paints, which have a shelf life equal to any commercial brand’s, are made with a canning preservative (also used in shampoos) that doesn’t escape into the air. “New houses are really sealed up tight, so interior air quality is very important,” says Pruitt. Best’s natural paint sells for $20.95 in exterior grades, and is shipped via UPS.

You can buy ChemSafe paints in stores, but only in the Bronx, New York, Austin, Texas and Scottsdale, Arizona. Owner John Disabatino mixes up his no-VOC, no-fungicide and low-biocide paints with natural pigments. The paint comes in both interior and satin finish exterior grades, and it boasts a one-year shelf life. A single exterior coat should last 10 years; if you apply two coats, make that 12 years. Since the paint is competitively priced at $25 a gallon, what’s holding people back? “Paint is confusing to people and there’s no consumer demand for no-VOC paint yet,” Disabatino says. “Education will change that.”

Educating dealers to better understand environmental products is an important priority, says Sam Goldberg of AFM Enterprises, which makes zero-solvent water-based Safe Coat paints. AFM interior and exterior paints, which cost between $25 and $30 a gallon, are available at environmentally conscious building supply stores, and at outlets catering to chemically sensitive and allergic people.

Safe as Milk

Among the non-toxic alternatives is milk paint, used since Colonial times and still made today by specialty manufacturers. One such is The Old Fashioned Milk Paint Company, started by a group of furniture restorers who liked the aged look this very flat paint gives to antiques. According to the company’s Joyce Hebert, the paint is made from all-natural ingredients, and based on casein, a dried milk protein. The paint is not cheap: enough powder to make a gallon (when mixed with water) is $42.95. “Our customers are antique dealers, cabinet makers and people who are very sensitive to things,” says Hebert. You can also make simple milk paint yourself from a combination of commercially available casein, distilled water, mason’s hydrated lime and borax.

If your home is enhanced with natural woodwork, you may also want to consider the chemical content of the stains and waxes you use on it. Greg Wills, director of sales and marketing at Livos, says, “Hundreds, if not thousands of chemicals, most of them never tested for toxicity, are used in traditional products.” Livos’ oils and waxes for wood are chemical-free, and based on cold-pressed, food-grade linseed oil.

John Bower’s The Healthy House recommends that you paint interiors in the fall or spring, between heating season and air-conditioning weather. Periods of high humidity are bad for water-based paints, which can dry slowly and produce mold. You’ll want to leave windows open, and use an exhaust fan.

Natural paint appears to be coming of age. If the fast pace of chemical-safe products continues, low-biocide paint may soon be sold in Wal-Mart.

JIM MOTAVALLI is editor of E.