How to Choose Healthier and Environmentally-Preferable Paints
Guest blog post by Emma Lloyd from Good Environmental Choice Australia
Paints and coatings can have significant impacts on the environment and human health, depending on what ingredients and components they contain. Paint is made from three basic ingredients: pigment, binder and solvent. In addition to these it can contain a variety of additives, including biocides (to prevent bacteria or fungal growth in the can or on the painted surface). Each of these ingredients can have an impact on the environment during the life cycle of the paint.
Pigments provide the colour, the opacity and the protective barrier in the paint. Titanium dioxide is used widely in the paint industry for this purpose. Its major environmental impact is in its manufacture, since it has high embodied energy (total amount of energy required to produce and transport a product), is a limited resource and its production results in both air and water emissions that carry an environmental impact.
The binder is what forms the film in a paint, helping it to adhere to the surface and influencing the resulting shine or flexibility. They can consist of synthetic or natural resins such as acrylics, polyurethanes, vinyl acrylics, melamine resins, epoxies, or oils. Some binders cause a greater environmental impact than others. In particular, linoleic acid production (linseed oil) causes significantly more environmental damage to an ecosystem due to crop growth and agriculture.
The solvent can be thought of as the carrier. It evaporates as the paint dries on the surface. Water is obviously the preferable solvent as it causes no environmental problems as it evaporates, whereas organic solvents release volatile organic compounds (VOCs) into the surrounding environment. Solvent-based paint also contains around 50 per cent more embodied energy than water-based paint.
VOCs are detrimental to indoor air quality. They can trigger allergies, asthma, headaches and other irritating symptoms as they readily vaporise into the surrounding air. VOC levels in indoor environments rise dramatically immediately after you finish painting, and can continue seeping out of the walls for several years to come.
VOCs are also suspected to cause cancer in humans and have been associated with "sick building syndrome". Occupants of a “sick” building typically experience “acute health and comfort effects” that can be reasonably linked to time spent in a building but with no obvious specific cause. Sufferers may complain of headaches; irritation to eyes, nose, throat or skin; fatigue and difficulty concentrating; a cough; or dizziness and nausea. They usually feel a sense of relief soon after walking out of the building.
Interior sources are often the main culprits of poor indoor air quality in a “sick” building, with VOC emissions coming from adhesives, upholstered furniture, flooring, paints and cleaning products. And poor indoor air quality doesn’t just cause people to feel sick, but it can also affect their productivity.
The effects of indoor air quality
A 2009 study by the Kador Group into the tenants of Green Star-rated 500 Collins Street in Melbourne investigated the effects of indoor air quality on workplace productivity. The existing tenants – a small law firm – were in the process of moving to newly refurbished space in the same building, with the refurbishments obtaining a 5 Green Star rating for Office Design and meeting criteria for environmental and human health standards. The new office resulted in significant reductions in sick leave (down 39%), increased average typing speed (up 9%) and accuracy, and a 7% increase in the billings ratio for the lawyers, despite a 12% reduction in average hours worked each month. This suggests that their productivity improved dramatically following the move. There were also improvements for the workers’ health, with significant reductions in the frequency of headaches, colds / flus, sore eyes, fatigue, and reported poor concentration.
The other components of paints can contain ingredients that are toxic to those producing the paint and those applying it. Many chemicals are used as biocides, and these are necessary. However, some can be carcinogens or cause mutations, so it’s important to avoid these. Some biocides can also release VOCs, even when you purchase a water-based paint, which is why no-VOC formulations are best.
The easiest way to determine which paints are environmentally-preferable and better for human health is to study the manufacturer’s claims on the packaging. Evidence of independent third-party certification is the best way to ensure the claims are genuine, such as the ecolabel scheme run by Good Environmental Choice Australia. ROCKCOTE EcoStyle Paint has held GECA certification since 2007.
GECA-certified paints and coatings do not contain known carcinogenic or mutagenic chemicals, and there are limits placed on the amount of titanium dioxide used. GECA only certifies water-based paints with low VOC content. Those certified under the most recent Paints and Coatings standard meet the requirements of the VOC credit under indoor environment quality as part of Green Star. ROCKCOTE EcoStyle was the first Australian manufactured commercially viable paint range to be completely free from dangerous solvents and chemicals sucg as formaldehyde, glycol ethers, benzene and ammonia.
While it is still legal to use products that emit nasties like VOCs, the issues caused by using these products are becoming increasingly apparent to specifiers, procurement officers and DIY enthusiasts. A lot of brands available on the market offer low-VOC or no-VOC alternatives, with several taking the extra step of attaining third-party certification to demonstrate that they’re environmentally preferable. Most will cost the same and give the same end result as standard formulations, so it makes sense to switch to safer paints which are better for you and for the environment.
Emma Lloyd is the Communications Officer for Good Environmental Choice Australia (GECA), which runs Australia’s only independent, not-for-profit ecolabelling program.
Sick Building Syndrome fact sheet – Environmental Protection Agency
Sustainability Victoria 2009, ‘Employee Productivity in a Sustainable Building, Pre-and Post Occupancy Studies in 500 Collins Street’