Reduce the fumes
A fresh coat of paint can change a room from dreary to divine. Stains, sealants, caulks, and adhesives help you build everything from a new bathroom to a bookcase. But all these useful products can also introduce unhealthy chemicals into your home and your body.
The biggest culprit is VOCs, or "volatile organic compounds," a large class of chemicals that readily evaporate at room temperature. If you walk into a room and notice that new-paint smell, you're breathing VOCs. Paints, stains, sealants, caulks, and adhesives release the highest levels of VOCs when wet. But even when they feel dry to the touch, they may keep releasing these gases for days, weeks, months, even years. Meanwhile your upholstery, carpets, and drapes act like sponges, absorbing VOCs and releasing them over time. While not everyone may be bothered by exposure to these gases, they can be a serious health risk for people with chemical sensitivities, asthma, or other respiratory conditions.
The good news is most major paint companies now offer at least one low-VOC paint, usually a water-based latex. And a few companies offer a full line of zero-VOC paints. Water-based sealants, stains, and floor-finishing products are available now, too.
Fifteen or twenty years ago some of these products didn't work as well their more noxious counterparts, giving low-VOC a bad rap. But the poorer performers have dropped out of the market or been reformulated, and most of today's products are of good quality.
- Air out. Provide proper ventilation when using any kind of coatings or adhesives. If you're working on a small project, do it outdoors if possible. If you must work indoors, open windows. Dust masks don't block VOCs; use a respirator specifically labeled for protection against paint vapors.
- Follow instructions. Always read and follow the directions on the product's label for use, clean up, and safety.
- Seal in poisons. You can apply low- or zero-VOC clear sealants over particle board and other pressed wood products to seal in formaldehyde.
- Store safely. Store leftover paints, sealants, caulks, glues, and the like tightly sealed in their originally containers, preferably in a garage or shed that's not attached to your house so fumes that leak from the container don't enter your living spaces.
- Recycle it. If you have leftover paint that you don't need, take it to a recycled paint collection site-contact your city's recycling department or Earth 911 for recycling opportunities.
When shopping, look for
- A water base. Water-based coatings and adhesives release fewer VOCs than oil-based or alkyd products, and the VOCs they do release are generally less toxic. But you have to pay more for them. In the case of paint, the healthier options can cost about $4 a gallon more than conventional paints of the same quality. The difference may be even greater when you compare premium-quality paints.
- Low VOCs. You'll usually find the VOC levels listed on the product's label. If you don't, go to the manufacturer's website and look up the product's MSDS. Green Seal's rule of thumb for interior paints and primers: VOCs shouldn't exceed 50 grams per liter for flat paint and 150 grams per liter for non-flat paint.
- Recycled content (for exteriors only). Some companies recycle leftover paint. It's a good way to keep paint out of the waste stream. In most cases, the VOC content is too high for use inside your house.
- The Green Seal Certified Mark. Green Seal is an independent, non-profit organization that uses science-based standards and the power of the marketplace to create a more sustainable world. Purchasing paints and other products with the Certified Mark is an easy way to know you're buying a safer product because it means the product has gone through a stringent, life-cycle based process to certify that it has less impact on human health and the environment. Not all Sierra Club Green Home Providers sell Green Seal products, so be sure to ask before your buy or look for the seal on the label.
- When you actually start reading the labels of coatings and adhesives, the lingo can be confusing. You might expect that paints labeled "VOC compliant" would be low in VOCs. Yet they merely meet federal or state laws about VOC content. (Many companies make coating and adhesive products with VOC levels much lower than these laws require.) Similarly, you might think that "low odor" means "low VOC." But some companies add fragrance to mask odor rather than reformulating the product to get rid of VOCs. For people with chemical sensitivities, even a low-VOC product may cause problems because of other additives. If you're not sure whether you can tolerate a product, test it by putting some on a scrap of wood.
- Most remodeling projects begin with the dreary task of removing old paint. It's important to keep in mind that many paints made before 1978 contained lead, a toxic metal that can cause brain damage. Any disturbance of old paint--sanding, scraping, using heat guns or paint strippers--can release lead particles into your home. (And even if you're not doing any remodeling work, peeling or chipping paint can wind up in children's mouths or end up in your family's lungs.) The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has detailed information about what to do about the problem.
- Paints and other coatings dubbed "natural" are usually made mostly from plant- and mineral-based ingredients rather than petrochemicals. But they aren't necessarily low in VOCs. Options include milk paints, clay paints, and plasters, and linseed oils for woodwork and floors. Make sure that the coating product you choose is appropriate for the intended application. A milk paint, for example, might not be durable enough for high-moisture, high-wear areas like kitchens.
...to you and your health
Unlike their oil-based cousins, water-based paints are easy to clean up with soap and water. Low- or no-VOC water-based paints help you avoid the symptoms that can be caused by exposure to VOCs, including nausea, eye irritation, and headaches as well as more severe, longer-lasting effects.
...to the Earth
Many VOCs in coatings and adhesives contribute to the formation of smog by combining with chemicals in the outside air, so using products with fewer VOCs helps everyone breathe easier.
- Dumping in drains. Never pour oil-based paints, paint thinners, or paint removers down the drain. Take them to your local household-hazardous-waste disposal site; contact your city's sanitation department for information.
- Inhaling. Some adhesives commonly used for home improvement, hobby and craft projects are toxic and high in VOCs. Epoxy glues, for example, expose you to fairly high concentrations of VOCs like toluene and styrene as well as other noxious chemicals. Handle these products with care, and if there are people in your household with asthma or other respiratory conditions, consider not using them at all in your home.
- If possible, choose a painter who has experience using healthier paints and can recommend specific brands of zero- or very low-VOC interior primer and paint. If you can't find a "green" painter, you should select the paint yourself. Visit a quality paint store or a retailer that specializes in green home products and ask for a top-performing healthy paint (quality varies among green paints, just as it does among conventional paints). Make sure the recommended products are truly low VOC and not merely "VOC compliant" (see above).
- In the contract, specify the brands, product names, colors, and finishes to be used and number of coats to be applied. When the contractor starts work, make sure the specified products are actually being used. Require the contractor to obtain your approval if he or she needs to use any products in addition to the specified paints (such as adhesives, solvents, or sealants).
- Even the best quality paint won't hold up if the surface isn't properly prepared. Before to getting the estimate, discuss with the contractor your expectations for prep work, such as patching cracks and holes, removing peeling paint, and cleaning and dusting all surfaces. Make sure the contract includes the agreed-upon level of prep. For information about dealing with lead-based paint, see above.
- For general advice on what questions to ask contractors and other tradespeople, see our "What to Ask Your Contractor" article.