domestic and DIY paint products
in Fine Art and Interior Decorating
Jackson Pollock in his studio using commercial paints (Namuth) | Ian Davenport: Paint Pour (Davenport)
Since the 1950s artists started venturing beyond traditional 'Fine Art Paints', and the use of commercial paint products became much more wide-spread and accepted. Artists such as Pollock, Damien Hurst, Morris Louis, or the British painter Ian Davenport made lavish use of commercial paints and solvents, at times possibly exposing themselves to damaging quantities of airborne toxins. It may seem surprising, but many of today's so-called 'nontoxic' paints may still carry such risks to a greater or lesser degree, and good ventilation and some form of respiratory protection from VOCs is recommended for most kinds of painting, wether it be in the context of art, or home decorating.
Many of the issues and topics in both fields, Fine Art, and Home Painting and Decorating, are linked and to some degree interchangeable. Intriguingly, contemporary artists from Jackson Pollock to Damien Hurst made deliberate use of household paints (wanting to make less 'academic' artworks).
As the paint industry makes chemical advances these trickle down into the more refined, highly pigmented, and more lightfast artist paints, which share most of the base ingredients. Potential health issues from toxic pigments, VOCs, PAH plastic softeners, formaldehyde, lacquer thinners, and other ingredients are shared across both areas. So called 'Nontoxic' materials and paints are gaining a strong foothold in the market, but artists and users of paint need some specialist knowledge to make informed choices; we are hoping to aid this process.
Recently the field of interior painting and decorating, and it's huge global market, experienced a transition towards more safety consciousness. A wide range of much safer products, wall paints, water-based gloss and varnishes have been introduced by the major paint manufacturers, and by upstart companies specializing in eco friendly formulations.
Many of these new paints offer similar decorative qualities and durability as their solvent based predecessors, at a price that is on a par with headache-inducing high VOC paint. (VOC = Volatile Organic Compound).
The theory being: being assured about healthy living, and carefree painting without the need for elaborate precautions. The reality is that many of the new products fall short of their claims of perfect safety, and paint companies make full use of regulatory loop holes and solvent exposure limits, or add toxic ingredients without declaring these to the consumer.
One large US paint company recently got it really wrong, when the first issue of their new line of supposedly 'natural' and 'nontoxic' paints (Benjamin Moore 'Natura' paint) turned out to be so harmful in some instances that unsuspecting consumers suffered mild or more serious illness/nausea and then fought for compensation in a major court case through San Francisco law firms (Lexington Law).
Benjamin Moore 'Natura' paint | recently the author used the product without suffering ill effects, other than a headache
A few decades ago the vast number of domestic paint products and thinners were to a considerable degree based on volatile harmful chemicals, which polluted your home during drying. Toxicity was the accepted norm and 'nontoxic' options were not available to customers, and only hospitals were served with toxin free paints; these already existed decades ago. Today there is greater awareness of the hazards of the volatile ingredients, VOCs, found in paints and, with new formulations being researched by the industry - as well as following new regulations - the level of harmful ingredients in many paint and solvent products is being reduced, or sometimes avoided altogether.
One common misconception is that VOC is a sort of by-product that is hard to eliminate altogether. Although this may the case in some instances, typically paint engineers deliberately add quantities of specialist solvents to their paint formulations to achieve certain properties, such as a better emulsion, enhanced shelf-life, or better polymerization of the drying paint film. 'Cellosolve TM' (essentially glycol ether) is such a specialist product, added to almost any paint, and the paint and cleaning product industries are frequently publicising 'research' that asserts this ubiquitous compound as being harmless to human health. Scientific studies portray a very different view (see below). 'Safe', 'nontoxic', and 'earth friendly' paint?
interior design ideas: Linea Italia
Neurological disorders, various forms of cancer, and brain disease are all known to be an occupational hazard in house painters, and recent research confirmed that the new generation of water-based products may still be harmful. Children were (and are) particularly at risk from the exposure to solvent fumes.
Our resource has extensive information on The Toxicity of petroleum-derived VOCs, Solvents, and Paint Thinners on this page:
The now widely accepted VOC labelling on the paint cans you buy at your local hardware store or DIY supermarket may give some indication to what extent a paint product is likely to emit volatile organics during application and drying, but 'msds' sheets give a better indication of safety. This harmful 'off-gassing' of VOCs into the environment can take months or even years! Many of the new products are either very low in VOCs or completely free from such solvents whilst delivering professional looking results and a vast range of vibrant colors.
The low-VOC paint products promise a considerably safer working environment than paints that are full of petroleum thinners. However, even low-VOC paint products may still contain toxins such as small amounts of mineral spirits and glycol ether, which are emitted into the interior atmosphere of your home over a long period of time. Paint Swatches advertise a rainbow of beautiful shades of color for your home. But do you always know what's in the paints you buy?
color has a very positive psychological effect, but beautiful paint may contain harmful chemistry
The ideal solution is to go with products that avoid VOC thinners altogether (Zero VOC), both in the paint formulation and as a cleaning agent. Fortunately, more and more research and development is taking place, and a few companies claim to be working to a new standard where VOCs, glycol ether, formaldehyde and phtalates are avoided altogether. The question is whether these standards go far enough. I have personal experience of using so called 'nontoxic' wall paint and then experiencing headaches and nausea after a day's painting session; this is a sure sign of some form of harmful VOC exposure. As an extra precaution I now always wear the new kind of face mask with carbon filter that are said to remove 95% of VOCs during painting sessions, and have suffered no further headaches or other symptoms.
'Green' paint is not just fiction but is becoming more of a reality in the marketplace. And these products are not just a fad or a 'green' fashion item, but something that offers tangible health benefits to anyone living with them. These benefits are particularly pronounced for children, pregnant women, and general reproductive health in men and women. (VOCs and Glycol ether are known to affect sperm count and libido):
It is of no surprise that paint products that are completely free from VOCs are already a requirement in schools and Kindergardens in many countries and a number of US States. 'Greenguard' environmental institute is one of several independent bodies able to certify the child and pregnancy safety of paint products. Especially for people who suffer from Multiple Chemical Sensitivity Syndrome (MCS) such rigorously nontoxic paint products are highly recommended to avoid health problems. ('Multiple Chemical Sensitivity is a syndrome in which multiple symptomes reportedly occur with low-level chemical exposure', Michael K Magill, MD) . GEI 'certifies products and materials for low chemical emissions and provides a free resource for choosing healthier products and materials for indoor environments...'
NASA puts Plants into Space for Health
Most house plants can remove a variety of toxins (up to 95%). NASA research found the following to be particularly effective at cleansing air: | Boston fern: removes formaldehyde | Dracaena Janet Graig: removes trichloroethylene | Dwarf date palm: removes xylene | Ficus alii: helps remove various toxins | Lady palm: improves indoor air quality | Peace Lily: removes various alcohols, benzene (highly cancer-causing), and trichloroethylene
According to a NASA study published in 1989 house plants are very efficient at purifying the air of indoor environments - both in the comfort of your private home... or in the interior of a space craft. The report found that common house plants can remove up to 87 percent of toxins (such as paint or adhesive fumes) in 24 hours. And house plants produce plenty of oxygen: altogether a breath of fresh air. NASA recommends to keep up to 10 good size plants (quote) in a 800 to 1000 square foot home. pdf download of the original NASA. gov research (click). The study also includes information on solvent risks.
Plants That Clean Indoor Air, Which Ones to Choose, by Deborah Mitchell
Overview of Indoor Air Quality (IAQ). www.epa.gov
The US Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, the American Lung Association, the World Health Organization and other public health and environmental organizations view indoor air pollution as one of the greatest risks to human health.
Most of our exposure to environmental pollutants occurs by breathing the air indoors. These pollutants come from activities, products and materials we use every day.
The air in our homes, schools and offices can be 2 to 5 times more polluted, and in some cases 100 times more polluted, than outdoor air.
Indoor air quality is a significant concern, because when the hours spent sleeping, working in offices or at school are added up, people on average spend the vast majority of their time indoors where they are repeatedly exposed to indoor air pollutants.
In fact, the US Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) estimates that the average person receives 72 percent of their chemical exposure at home, which means the very places most people consider safest paradoxically exposes them to the greatest amounts of potentially hazardous pollutants.
The vapors from traditional gloss paint can be sufficiently toxic to lung tissue
to kill an unsuspecting amateur decorator during a painting session
if no ventilation or respiratory protection is present,
especially in a hot enclosed environment.
The universal solvent...toxic or not?
Butyl Cellosolve, or glycol ether, is the paint maker's favorite ingredient.Rather than being 'nontoxic' as often claimed, exposure to the compound cancause kidney damage and miscarriages.
face mask with 'nuisance' organic protection (active carbon), Moldex | professional organic respirator (cartridge type), North
Some new models of respirator now protect against
VOC exposure and are more comfortable to wear
than the heavy-duty 'gas-mask' type.
Note: Most types of plain paper dust masks do not protect against
paint fumes and VOCs.
|Protection against low level VOC exposure|
Today there are many paint products that are marketed as ‘safe’, yet there may still be harmful low-level VOC emissions, such as glycol ether. Examples: many water-based paints, acrylic floor finish, some artist acrylics, low odor, low VOC solvents, and printmaking resists.
Although a full organic respirator may be impractical for a day’s work with water based paint we would recommend wearing a disposable light weight mask that offers some organic vapor protection. Dispose of the mask after a day’s work (about $ 5 per mask).
3M™ Particulate Respirator 8514, N95, with Nuisance Level Organic Vapor Relief
Gloss Paints: Really quite ToxicWall Paints: The true Story
nontoxic paint is earning the attention of NYT editors
(excerpt with permission, copyright: The New York Times)read the full article on the NYT website:
Information on Nontoxic Paints:
Books related to safer DIY paint practice and solvent safety
1) 'Painting for Dummies' | 2) 'Smart Guide: Painting' | 3) 'Home Safe Home' | 4) 'VOCs in the Atmosphere'
1) DIY Painting for Dummies Katharine Kaye McMillan, Patricia Hart McMillan | 2007, ISBN-10: 0470175338
A very useful very practical compendium, but lacking in safety information. Many essential safety precautions are insufficiently covered (e.g. use of ventilation and respirators, safer products)
2) Smart Guide: Painting step-by-step-projects | John D Wagner, 2008, ASIN: B00AVGMI4E
A very useful very practical compendium. The book includes many essential safety precautions such as the use of ventilation and respirators, and safer products
3) Home Safe Home, Debra Lynn Dadd, 2005, ISBN-10: 087477859X
'Home Safe Home is the ultimate reference of its kind, written by the leading authority on eliminating toxics in the home. It offers more than four hundred tips, including do-it-yourself formulas for inexpensive, safe products to replace the harmful substances we are exposed to in our own households.'
4) Volatile Organic Compounds in the Atmosphere, Royal Society of Chemsitry, ISBN-10: 0854042156, 1995 | Ronald E Hester is at the University of York, UK Roy M Harrison OBE is at the University of Birmingham,
'(...) This Issue reviews our current knowledge of VOCs, drawing upon the expertise of renowned experts and major national and international research programmes. It examines man-made and natural sources, as well as pathways and chemical reactions in the atmosphere. It also looks closely at the sources and concentrations of VOCs indoors, where humans are most likely to be exposed to them...'
billboard from the leadfreekids campaign, Chicago 2013 (taken with my iPhone)
Any paintwork predating 1978 is likely to contain lead in substantial amounts.Make sure you keep small children away from any areas where dust fromold paint chips accumulates (old doors, skirting boards, window frames, etc.),and wear professional protection when removing or stripping lead paints.