Great Walls: Eco-Friendly Wall Treatments

For lovely home décor—without polluted indoor air—deck your walls with less-toxic paints.

| July/August 2007

  • All-natural Terramed plasters come in beautiful colors such as Golden Wheat.
  • A new line of ayurvedic colors from AFM Safecoat helps homeowners achieve life balance through color.
  • Nontoxic SafePaint from the Old-Fashioned Milk Paint Company comes in antique colors.
  • Indochine wall coverings made of sisal are part of Innovations’ Innvironment collection.

Whether you choose wallpaper or a fresh coat of paint, the right wall treatment can make a huge impact in your home—often for little cost. Because they’re such large surfaces, walls are agents of change. And some of the hippest, healthiest alternatives to conventional wall finishes—such as clay plaster and milk paint—have been in use for centuries.

Conventional paints emit toxic fumes called VOCs (volatile organic compounds). Some VOCs contain carcinogens and neurotoxins such as benzene, formaldehyde, ammonia, toluene and xylene. These substances can cause nose, skin and eye irritation, nausea, respiratory problems, convulsions, nerve damage, and liver and kidney disease. Solvent- and oil-based paints contain a higher level of VOCs (between 32 and 42 percent) compared with latex (or water-based) paints, which contain about 2 to 5 percent, according to The Green Guide.

Natural paints: Paint for the planet

Natural paints are produced from elements found in nature: milk, clay, botanical ingredients, natural oils (such as linseed oil), beeswax, tree resin and mineral pigments. Either water- or oil-based, they’re generally nontoxic, but because they’re made with natural pigments, they usually don’t offer as wide a range of colors as synthetic paints.



“Natural paints require less energy to produce,” says Peter Colburn, a Seattle-based expert on green home products. “Because they’re plant sourced or contain low-impact, mined materials, they have either no or a very low content of petroleum-derived ingredients.”

Favored for porous or unfinished surfaces, VOC-free milk paint is made of casein (milk protein), clay, lime and natural pigments. Most milk paint comes powdered so you can mix it as needed, which reduces waste. (Some premixed varieties contain preservatives.) Whitewash, which only comes in white, is made of lime, water and salt, and it’s great for covering cement, plaster and stucco.



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