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How are paint companies allowed to supply products that are so potentially harmful?

We have just spent 2 hours investigating paints and you know what? We don’t understand how paint companies are allowed to supply us with products that are so potentially harmful to our health and the environment…

Of course paints are an important part of the look of any building but do we really know what they are doing to us? In this blog we will take a closer look, you may be shocked! We will also look at the positive moves to manufacture more environmentally friendly paints.

Like most of you, we will open a pot of paint, stir it then start painting, not a care in the world. We’ll even admit to not opening windows and doors to ventilate the room properly. We had no idea of the potential risks. Even as we were happily slapping on our favourite colours in our hermetically sealed office we were unaware of the fumes which can cause nausea, dizziness and headaches. Not just that, they can also cause other long term health problems.

Conventional paints may include formaldehyde, heavy metals, chemical pigments, fungicides, titanium dioxide (used as a whitener) and some real nasties called volatile organic compounds, or VOCs for short. VOCs are given out as you paint and their concentration can increase up to 1,000 times normal levels in the room you are painting – they then carry on being emitted for up to five years after your brushes have dried.

Paint and paint products are the second-largest source of VOCs after cars. The VOCs in paint can seriously affect the indoor air quality of even a well-ventilated home or office, and they’re a major cause of ‘sick building syndrome’.

The health effects of VOCs vary from source to source, and from person to person. Professional painters have been found to have a range of serious health problems, especially liver and kidney damage. People with pre-existing conditions, pregnant and nursing women, children with allergies or respiratory conditions and other sensitive people are at particular risk, so it is no surprise that legislation is now in force to limit the amount of Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC’s) used in paint.

  • To be considered low-VOC, the paint should contain <50 g/l of VOC.
  • To be considered zero-VOC, the paint should contain <5 g/l of VOC.
  • Solid content usually ranges from 25-45%, higher solid percentages indicate less VOCs.

With this is mind try to use eco paints with zero VOCs in bedrooms, especially those of your children.

A quick tip here, plants can absorb many of the VOC’s so do not be afraid to scatter them all round your home or office.

It’s not just the constituents of the paint that are harmful, but their manufacture as well (being another by-product of the petrochemical industry). We are using non-sustainable resources and one litre of paint production can result in up to 30 litres of toxic waste. All round they are bad news.

Keep an eye out for confusing marketing in the paint world – organic paint, for instance, is simply paint which contains carbon compounds and many of the water based gloss paints being marketed as ‘environmentally friendly’ contain more chemicals than the oil based paints they replace.

Low odour paints may be more pleasant to use but just because you can’t smell the fumes doesn’t mean that they are not still present.

​ECO Paints

​We are sure this will make you stop and think the next time you pick up a tin of paint. Firstly, consider if it is green. Look at the label and check for the nasties mentioned above then look for natural products free of any chemicals and zero VOCs whenever possible.

Eco paints only represent a tiny percentage of the whole market and although many green outlets stock them, your best way to buy them is probably online. They can be applied in the same way as ordinary paints, with similar coverage, though paints made with natural oils tend to take longer to dry. Eco paints may be a bit more expensive than conventional paints but remember you are generally paying for natural ingredients, low carbon or carbon neutral production and the option to compost any leftover paint.

They’re available in a wide range of finishes – emulsions, interior and exterior eggshells, masonry paints and primers, you can buy hard-wearing, wipeable natural paints for use in kitchens, hallways and so on. They generally perform to the same level as conventional paints, as long as they’re applied correctly.

Aside from regular finishes like matt, satin, emulsion, eggshell or gloss, there are a few other products which are associated with environmentally friendly paint products:

  • Casein Paint – said to be the most natural of paints, Casein paint is made from milk proteins and white lime. Supplied in powder form to be mixed with water casein paint has a natural soft white finish but can be coloured with the addition of special pigments. Ideal for older properties, this paint finish contains absolutely no VOC’s, oils or solvents and is both long lasting and simple to apply.
  • Claypaint – as the name suggests Claypaint is a water based matt emulsion made from natural clays and is entirely VOC and solvent free. Because of its breath-ability Claypaint is especially suitable for externally-facing walls of older properties where damp penetration is a problem
  • Mineral Based Paints – paints containing pure potassium silicate or sodium silicate. These are often used as an expensive high performance alternative to conventional masonry paints and have excellent environmental credentials due to the lack of solvent binders.

Here are 5 companies producing quality eco paint

  1. Aglaia – Manufactured in Germany since 1968 using only natural ingredients. Products for indoor walls, timber and metal with colours you can mix yourself, or choose from the pre-mixed historical, coastal or contemporary ranges. Also produces Edward Bulmer’s Pots of Paint collection.
  2. Auro – Petrochemical-free paints made using natural raw materials from environmentally managed sources and produced using a sustainable ecological cycle. Its gloss paint is Ethical Consumer’s best buy.
  3. Biofa – Wall emulsions and gloss paints, stains, varnishes and cleaners, made from sustainable, natural raw materials.
  4. EarthBorn – Paints for timber, and interior and exterior walls. Water-based and free of petrochemicals, they are the only UK brand to carry the EU eco-label flower accreditation. Stylish shades include designer Oliver Health’s Eco Chic range. ​
  5. Lakeland Paints – One of the UK’s leading manufacturers of organic paints. Totally VOC and solvent-free paints for interior and exterior walls, woodwork and floors. Has the British Allergy Foundation’s seal of approval. Available in 108 colours, plus a colour-matching service.

The move towards more environmentally friendly paints has been taken up by many of the mainstream paint companies although in reality they had little choice in the matter and are simply putting a positive spin on it. Still, every little counts.

Crown have introduced their ‘Breathe Easy’ range of emulsions which are low in odour and 99% solvent-free. Dulux have the ‘Ecosense’ range of matt emulsions and satinwoods with reduced solvent content and 20% recycled packaging.

Fashionable brands such as Farrow & Ball and Fired Earth don’t say much about their environmental credentials because they use basically the same formulas for their paints as the large chemical companies – albeit with slightly better quality raw materials. They do however state that they meet the current standards – just like everyone else does?

What a shame that the major companies will do just enough to fulfil legislation rather than leading the way to make our home and work environments as healthy as possible.