Non-toxic paints gain popularity

Spring often brings the urge to clean, perhaps to liven up a room with a fresh coat of paint. Now that can be done with eco-friendly paints that don't give off noxious odors.

The non-toxic arm of the household paint world is booming, and many companies have entered the market.

AFM's Safecoat brand is the granddaddy of the non-toxic paint business, having been in the market for 25 years. Boutique brands, including Mythic and YOLO Colorhouse, have cropped up in recent years, and industry giants tout their own non-toxic, latex brands.

Sherwin Williams has its Harmony line, while Home Depot sells Freshaire Choice. Benjamin Moore already sells its low-toxic Aura but is rolling out a new, zero-VOC interior paint called Natura that it says will be available in all of its nearly 3,000 colors.

"Everyone is trying to paint a green face on themselves," said David Johnston, 58, of Boulder, Colo., a building consultant who wrote "Green from the Ground Up: Sustainable, Healthy and Energy-Efficient Home Construction" (Taunton, 2008).

"That 'new house smell,' as much as we've come to love it, is really a flag that there's something in the air that we don't want our kids to breathe," said Johnston.

VOC refers to volatile organic compounds, those chemical additives that make regular paint work its magic: They help it roll on smoothly, dry fast and prevent mildew. Some of these chemicals are natural (but still toxic), such as formaldehyde, which is added to curtail chipping.

Not all paints have the same types and frequency of VOCs, which can cause smog and deplete the ozone. Some of the compounds have been linked to cancer, and the paint smell that lingers for days or weeks after painting is the "off gassing" of these chemicals.

The Environmental Protection Agency reports that exposure to paints high in VOCs can cause headaches, dizziness and vision problems, among other symptoms, depending on which chemicals are in the paint, how long the exposure is and a person's age (kids are more vulnerable). These paints are regulated, to some degree, and cannot include more than 250 grams per liter of VOCs.

Non-toxic latex paint is not regulated. The most eco-friendly paints have zero VOCs, but some paints are low-VOC, with 50 grams per liter.

So how does a consumer know if a paint brand really is non-toxic?

Industry insiders suggest a simple sniff test: If the paint smells noxious, it has VOCs, perhaps a lot of them. If it's odorless, or smells like fresh milk, then it's likely a non-toxic paint.

"If something smells pungent, or if it burns your nose or your eyes, you know that's probably not something you want to paint with," said Carl Minchew, director of color technology at Benjamin Moore in Montvale, N.J.

However, because some toxic chemicals are odorless, Johnston advises that consumers read labels and look for certification, such as from Greenguard or Green Seal, that a brand is eco-friendly.

Years ago, the zero-VOC paints didn't work as well as regular latex paints, said Alex Rossi, 34, a Denver-area house painter who uses only non-toxic paints.

"What the green paint companies have done is they've found ways to make their paint more 'scrubbable' and more user-friendly to compete with the old, traditional coatings," he said. "With two coats of the two products (latex and zero-VOC latex paint) side by side, I see no difference."

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