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Gloss or Matte?

Domestic Paints,
Wall Painting,
and Decorating:

Safety Considerations for 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 a batch of their new line of supposedly 'natural' and 'nontoxic' paints (Benjamin Moore 'Natura' paint, in 2010) 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).

One user wrote: " I was so sickened by Natura paint back in 2010 that I couldn?t live in my house for 6 months until all the sheetrock was removed. It took me over a year to physically recover.. "


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 Toxicity of Solvents

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.

'Safer' paint is becoming more of a reality in the marketplace. And the best of 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):

See   Reproductionrisks 


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...'


Can acrylics and water based 'safe' paints be hazardous?

The answer is : Y E S   read more here:

   Acrylics, Polymer Paints and Polymerization:

       Toxicity and Safety Considerations

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 Clean Indoor Air

              Plants That Clean Indoor Air, Which Ones to Choose, by Deborah Mitchell

                  EPA Overview of Indoor Air Quality (IAQ)               


                               The Inside Story: A Guide to Indoor Air Quality

                 Office Indoor Air Quality       


                                 Center for Safety in The Arts -

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.

V O C  S o l v e n t   H a z a r d s

(volatile organic compounds)


Glycol Ether:
The universal solvent...toxic or not?

Ethylene Glycol, or glycol ether, perhaps the most common solvent, is used in a wide range of products from cheap acrylics and water-based paints to many domestic cleaning products, such as window cleaner. Paint engineers praise the chemical, often sold as 'Butyl Cellosolve', as the ultimate agent for making smooth emulsions and fast setting paint, without having to resort to the use of mineral spirits. But the health hazards of this clear, highly concentrated, and very volatile liquid have been underplayed and underestimated for years; recent medical studies conducted in the UK on house painters and decorators suggest otherwise (Sheffield).

Today, there is little doubt that the near odorless glycol ether poses a much more serious health risk than often assumed. The clear, sweet tasting substance commonly used as anti freeze, shot to infamy in 1985 when some Austrian and German wine makers were shown to have spoiled their wine with this toxic chemical. The incident prompted one of the best known food scares in history and for about a year Germans resorted to drinking beer instead of wine.

Glycol ether: 'It is known to cause: throat irritation, headache, backache, kidney problems, oedema (swelling), necrosis (cell death). If swallowed, can cause drowsiness, and slurred speech, possibly stupor, vomiting, respiratory failure, coma, convulsions, and death.'

Butyl Cellosolve, or glycol ether, is the paint maker's favorite ingredient.
Rather than being 'nontoxic' as often claimed, exposure to the compound can 
cause kidney damage and miscarriages.

Check MSDS information and avoid products with significant concentrations of this hidden VOC. Recent studies confirmed a direct link between glycol ether exposure and fertility, both in men and women. According to the University of Sheffield, (2008), house painters using water-based paints are two and a half times more likely to suffer damaged sperm, low sperm count, and infertility than other men. 'Dr. Andy Povey, senior lecturer in Molecular Epidemiology at the University of Manchester, said: 'We know that certain glycol ethers can affect male fertility and the use of these has reduced over the past two decades. However our results suggest that they are still a workplace hazard and that further work is needed to reduce such exposure.'

Original Article: 'Occupation and male infertility: glycol ethers and other exposures'
Occupational and Environmental Medicine.

2008, 65: 708-714

Safe paint: how safe is it?

Not all MSDS sheets are the same
For more complete information on the safety of commercial paints.
we would advise consulting both the information printed on actual products
(especially in small print) as well as material safety data sheets.
NOTE: In some states and countries some potentially
harmful ingredients do not require listing on MSDS sheets,
especially in low concentrations.
If in doubt: do some web searching, ask an expert,
...or consider checking the Californian hazard information on the product.

The unhealthy side of Safe Paint
Even presumably safe, safer, less-toxic, nontoxic, or eco-friendly products
often include some hidden harmful or toxic ingredients.
Medical studies show that even such low concentrations
can cause ill health. Watch out for a Glycol Ether content. Its true toxicity
has only recently emerged in medical studies (may cause miscarriages / infertility).
Also: Phtalates (softeners), Formaldehyde, etc.

Some manufacturers are fairly straight with their customers about what's in a paint can,
but customers often aren't told what they are really buying,
and how it should be used safely. 

A common problem with many paint products is mislabeling. Even some very
reputable firms have been known to be at fault about giving
misleading or insufficient product information.
With traditional, harmful paint products cross-bones and hazard warnings give
ample warning that imply 'beware' are dealing with volatile chemicals not foodstuff.
With the new and increasingly widely sought after safe and nontoxic
products - and on paints in general - such warnings are frequently missing.
Few people spend more time around their paints
and solvents than artists, so health hazards are exacerbated.

Safe Paints used safely: always use Good Ventilation!
Anyone with in-depth knowledge of the subject would
agree that the best strategy for health-aware paint
practice is in a combination of the following measures:

  • choose the least toxic paints, solvents and products
  • wear gloves
  • do not handle artist paints around kids
  • study all ingredients and their potential side-effects
  • maintain good ventilation (open windows and doors)
  • use additional fans or extraction systems to move vapors away from the work area
  • do not inhale paint fumes
  • avoid using traditional mineral spirits and thinners Solvent Toxicity
  • eco-and health-friendly solvent alternatives are now widely available Safe Solvents
  • open windows and use fans to create a through draft when using paints in your home
  • use local and general fume extraction in a professional setting
  • wear organic respirators when needed, see below
  • acrylics and polymers may require a dry working environment or even heat-setting to help create a permanent surface without VOC off-gassing
  • take extra care when removing old paint from the late seventies, due to potential lead exposure
  • allow left over quantities of paint to dry on a flat surface, then dispose of as dry waste
  • don't allow any paint residues to enter waste water, dispose as dry waste instead


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).

Product example:

3M™ Particulate Respirator 8514, N95, with Nuisance Level Organic Vapor Relief

'Nontoxic' Paints in Practice

1) Eco Test

The German magazine and environmental institute 'Eco Test' conducted a number of tests to find out of the new kinds of 'nontoxic' wall and gloss paints hold up to their claims of perfect safety. Consistently, most brands fell short of safety claims during testing, and some supposedly safe products were found to contain all kinds of things they claimed to avoid, e.g. formaldehyde, borax, acids, glycol ether and toxic pigments. By contrast, some other 'safe' paint products seemed to do rather better in containing only safe ingredients.
Note, the links to sample tests are in German:

Gloss Paints: Really quite Toxic

Wall Paints: The true Story

nontoxic paint is earning the attention of NYT editors

2) Road Test: Finally, Good-Looking Nontoxic Paint?
By Stephen Treffinger 

The New York Times

'I tested 10 brands of environmentally friendly indoor paints, which are very low in, or free of, volatile organic compounds, or V.O.C.’s — toxic chemicals like benzene and formaldehyde found in traditional paints, which can be released into the air for years after the paint has dried and have been linked to a number of health problems, including asthma and cancer. The test was conducted in three parts: First, I applied each paint with a roller to a section of primed wall, observing how well it went on and taking note of its odor. Next, I painted two coats on a 2-by-2-foot square of wall, let the paint dry for six weeks — the amount of time recommended by most manufacturers — and then smudged it with newspaper-stained fingers to see how hard it was to clean with a sponge. Finally, I drew on a primed board with red and black permanent markers and then applied several coats of each paint, to see how much it took to cover up the markings.'

(excerpt with permission, copyright: The New York Times)
read the full article on the NYT website:

3) Eartheasy

The environmental group 'eartheasy' has a long history of engagement with environmental issues. Their website contains a market overview and some of very useful and well researched information on 'nontoxic' paints and issues of paint safety, and the information provided is more detailed and objective than what's provided on actual paint products. 

Information on Nontoxic Paints:

Health. Reduced toxins benefit everyone, including those with allergies and chemical sensitivities. 
Environment. Reduces landfill, groundwater and ozone depleting contaminants.
Effective. Low-VOC products perform well in terms of coverage, scrubability and hideability (covering flaws on previous coats).
Water-Based. Easy cleanup wtih soap and warm water.
Little or No Hazardous Fumes. Low odor during application; no odor once cured. No off-gassing. Painted areas can be occupied sooner, with no odor complaints.
Not Deemed Hazardous Waste. Cleanup and disposal greatly simplified.

Types of Non-Toxic Paints and Finishes
The term "non-toxic" is used here in its broadest sense. With paints and finishes, it's more a matter of degree. Even Zero-VOC formulations contain some small amounts of toxins. Here are three general categories of non-toxic (or low-toxic) 
paints: Natural Paints, Zero VOC, and Low VOC ... (use the link below to continue reading, and for a product overview)  

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 HomeDebra 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...'

The Lead Paint Legacy

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 from 
old paint chips accumulates (old doors, skirting boards, window frames, etc.),
and wear professional protection when removing or stripping lead paints.

CDC. National Lead Poisoning 

Prevention Week