Low-VOC: Better Paint for Your Walls

Go green while painting your walls by doing your best to keep harmful toxins out of the air.

| July/August 1999

Nothing is more pleasing to the eye and nurturing to the soul than being surrounded by colors you love. Everyone has a favorite, whether soothing blue, cheerful yellow, or calming sage. Now more than ever we’re using gorgeous paint colors and intriguing faux finishes to create distinctive, beautiful living spaces.

But before you roll out the drop cloths and head for the paint store, consider this: Most paint contains chemicals and compounds that are definitely harmful to the environment and potentially harmful to you and your family. Even latex, considered the “safe” paint by most, contains some of these detrimental compounds.

The good news is that many paint manufacturers, large and small, are going “green,” providing ecologically improved paints for use indoors and out. When these paints are used correctly and with proper ventilation, most of us will never suffer ill effects, especially when we choose less toxic ones.

A Primer on Paint and Its Problems  

All paint has three major components: a pigment for color and hiding power; a binder that holds the pigment to the surface; and a carrier that maintains the pigment and binder in liquid form for ready application. While household paint has not contained lead since it was banned by the Consumer Product Safety Commission in 1978, it may contain other harmful chemicals, including petrochemicals and solvents, mercury, formaldehyde, benzene, and a slew of ­others that can have harsh effects on the human body—from temporary dizziness to acute breathing problems, or even cancer.

There are two kinds of paint: oil-based and water-based, or latex. Oil-based paints contain drying agents, formerly linseed, soy, or tung oils; now, more often, that agent is a synthetic polymer known as alkyd. Oil-based paint requires a ­petroleum- based solvent for clean-up. Latex paint contains fewer harmful substances than oil-based paint, and because it’s water soluble, requires no chemical solvents for clean up. While both are available for indoor and outdoor applications, latex is the popular choice for interior use.

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