Week of 12/24/2006

Dear EarthTalk: I’m moving into a freshly painted apartment, and am curious to know whether it makes any sense to repaint the walls with non-toxic paint in hopes of "covering up" the toxic stuff already there. Or is it too late?

—Erin East, New York, NY

Conventional indoor paints do indeed release potentially toxic chemicals during and shortly after application; though once paint is dry the majority of the offending substances, collectively known as "volatile organic compounds" or "VOCs," tend to stay sealed up. As such, most people will not be affected once the telltale new paint smell has faded away.

If someone is suffering adverse health effects from exposure to fresh paint it should not be taken lightly. "Off-gassing" VOCs can cause serious respiratory tract irritation as well as visual impairment, headaches, dizziness and memory loss. Additionally, many VOCs have been shown to cause cancer in animals, and some are suspected of being carcinogenic to humans. Health effects vary greatly depending on the particular chemicals involved and the amount of exposure and individual sensitivity of those living with them. Besides paints, a wide range of other home products—including building materials, carpets, furniture, cleaning supplies and bug sprays—can emit VOCs.

If someone is suffering from respiratory problems or other symptoms upon moving into a freshly painted residence, or remaining sensitive long after a paint job, there are many paints now on the market that can help decrease the amount of VOCs emitted into the air.

There are essentially three general categories of non-toxic (or low-toxic) paints: zero-VOC, low-VOC and so-called "natural." Keep in mind, however, that the term "non-toxic" is used in its broadest sense. Even "zero-VOC" formulations, such as those made by AFM Safecoat, Yolo Colorhouse and Ecos, for example, can contain trace amounts (up to five grams per liter or less) of toxic ingredients.

Some leading low-VOC paints can be obtained from manufacturers such as Cloverdale, Vista and Miller, to name a few. Industry leaders Benjamin Moore and Sherwin-Williams also offer own low-VOC lines. "Natural" paints and finishes, from manufacturers such as Livos, Alglaia and BioShield, are made from raw ingredients such as water, plant oils, clay and milk protein, and as such usually contain minimal amounts of VOCs. Consumers can track down such healthier paints at retailers like the Environmental Home Center and Greenhome.com, and even at some of the larger home repair chains.

Precautions should be taken during the application of any paint. Only buy exactly what you need and apply it with adequate ventilation. Remember to always keep paints out of the reach of children and pets, and safely dispose of all unused product. If ventilation is not sufficient, wear a respirator with a filter that will capture and prevent the inhalation of VOCs.

CONTACTS: U.S. EPA "Introduction to Indoor Air Quality: Volatile Organic Compounds"; Environmental Home Center; Greenhome.com.


Dear EarthTalk: I’ve heard the term "greenbelts" pertaining to the natural coastline barriers in India, Malaysia and Sri Lanka that protected some people from the worst of the Indian Ocean Tsunami. But what are greenbelts that exist in urban areas?

—Helen, via e-mail

The term "greenbelt" refers to any area of undeveloped natural land that has been set aside near urban or developed land to provide open space, offer light recreational opportunities or contain development. And yes, the natural greenbelts along areas of Southeast Asia’s coastlines, including the region’s mangrove forests, served as buffers and helped to prevent even greater loss of life from the December 2004 tsunami.

Greenbelts in and around urban areas have probably not saved any lives, but they are important nonetheless to the ecological health of any given region. The various plants and trees in greenbelts serve as organic sponges for various forms of pollution, and as storehouses of carbon dioxide to help offset global warming. "Trees are an important part of the city infrastructure," says Gary Moll of American Forests. Because of the many benefits trees provide to cities, Moll likes to refer to them as the "ultimate urban multi-taskers."

Greenbelts are also important to help urban dwellers feel more connected to nature. Dr. S.C. Sharma of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research in India believes that all cities should "earmark certain areas for the development of greenbelts [to] bring life and color to the cement concrete jungle and [a] healthy environment to the urbanities."

Greenbelts are also important in efforts to limit sprawl, which is the tendency for cities to spread out and encroach on rural lands and wildlife habitat. Three U.S. states—Oregon, Washington and Tennessee—require their largest cities to establish so-called "urban growth boundaries" to limit sprawl through the establishment of planned greenbelts. Meanwhile, the cities of Minneapolis, Virginia Beach, Miami and Anchorage have created urban growth boundaries on their own. In California’s Bay Area, the non-profit Greenbelt Alliance has successfully lobbied for the establishment of 21 urban growth boundaries across four counties surrounding the city of San Francisco.

The concept has also caught on in Canada, with the cities of Ottawa, Toronto and Vancouver adopting similar mandates for the creation of greenbelts to combat sprawl. Urban greenbelts can also be found in and around larger cities in Australia, New Zealand, Sweden and the United Kingdom.

The green belt concept has even spread to rural areas, such as in East Africa. Womens" rights and environmental activist Wangari Maathai launched the Green Belt Movement in Kenya in 1977 as a grassroots tree-planting program to address the challenges of deforestation, soil erosion and lack of water there. To date, her organization has overseen the planting of 40 million trees across Africa. In 2004 Maathai was the first environmentalist to be awarded the prestigious Nobel Peace Prize. Why "peace?" "There can be no peace without equitable development and there can be no development without sustainable management of the environment in a democratic and peaceful space," said Maathai in her acceptance speech.

CONTACTS: American Forests Urban Sprawl Information; Greenbelt Alliance; The Green Belt Movement.

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