Stroke of Brilliance: The Eco-Friendly Alternative to Conventional Paints

Find the perfect natural paint alternative for your home.

| May/June 2001

  • Natural mineral pigments from Bioshield are derived from clay; baking at high temperatures intensifies their colors. They provide a palette that can range from intense to subtle hues; they are shown here on plaster. The pigments have been mixed with a milk-base paint. Surprisingly small amounts are needed to create distinctive colors.
    Photography By Joe Coca
  • These broken plaster chips are painted with Bioshield milk paint tinted with mineral pigments; the conventional printed paint chips are from Benjamin Moore’s Ecospec low-VOC acrylic latex line.
    Photography By Joe Coca
  • Natural enamel paints from Livos Phytochemistry are not water soluble but include linseed, pine, lemon, and castor oils along with mineral pigments and other natural additives.
    Photography By Joe Coca
  • Mixing milk paint with natural pigments is a fun way to create your own colors.
    Photography By Joe Coca

What you smell after freshening a room with conventional solvent-based interior wall paint might include as much as 60 percent volatile organic compounds (VOCs) such as formaldehyde, benzene, and acetone, which can cause health problems ranging from temporary dizziness to respiratory distress to severe allergic reactions and worse.

In the United States alone, we use more than a billion gallons of paint each year. It’s estimated that the VOCs in paint contribute as much as 9 percent of the atmospheric pollution that is damaging the ozone layer. At the same time, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that indoor pollution—to which chemicals outgassing from paint contribute greatly—is responsible for more than 11,000 deaths from cancer, kidney failure, and respiratory collapse each year. Even though deadly lead and mercury have been banned from use in paint, and water-based latex increasingly replaces more toxic oil-based enamels, the threat to personal and environmental health posed by paint is not a trivial problem. Happily, there are options.

Better Chemistry

As we’ve come to understand the health risks of traditional paint products, government regulations have prompted the paint industry to develop safer alternatives. Public building projects such as schools and health care facilities have code requirements that limit toxic ingredients and VOCs for all interior finishes. Some mainstream paint manufacturers, notably Benjamin Moore and Glidden, have created consumer product lines that adhere to the same safety standards. They include water-based acrylic latex primers, paints, and enamels that are low-odor and low- or zero-VOC.

In a more specialized vein, American Formulating and Manufacturing (AFM) is a company devoted to creating environmentally healthy building and interior furnishing products of all sorts, including zero-VOC wall paints. And their sealer can be used over conventional paints to reduce or eliminate the release of harmful fumes into the environment.

The downsides? The chemical makeup of these products might not address the needs of those with severe allergies, more paint may be required to get full coverage, and the palette is limited to lighter colors.

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