Painting with "Green" Paints

Patient Expert

The beginning of September has been "refresh my apartment time."

According to New York law, rented apartments are due a painting by the landlord every three years. I haven't had my apt painted since the summer of 2004 and it showed: the ceiling was cracking, the walls were cracking and splitting, the paint on the door jams was flaking off, there was water damage on the bathroom ceiling and on the living room wall on the other side of the bathroom. Getting my apartment painted, which is also my home office, is a major upheaval. Additionally, paint is an allergy and asthma trigger for me, for many of us.

So I put it off.

Until this summer. I couldn't stand the cracking, splitting, flaking and damage anymore So I made an appointment with my building for a thorough scrape, plaster, and paint and I made plans to be elsewhere for a couple of weeks.

Paint with a low VOC Paint

The building uses white paint for everything and I'm a color girl. So, I let them paint their white and then hired a contractor. But picking color, without a decorator, or ahem, a decorative flair, can be a dicey prospect. I settled on some sunny Miami-inspired shades for each room.

Now I had to figure out what kind of paint to buy.

In my childhood, oil-based paint was the go-to paint, at least in the kitchen and the bathroom, but it made me sneeze and wheeze. Latex was always a better choice for me health-wise but decorators, contractors and building maintenance all used oil-based paints - bad for me health-wise. In the last 10 years or so, latex paints (water-based) have quietly replaced the oil based -- it seems no building uses oil-based paints anymore for interiors. And I'm not just imagining it. This Washington Post article from 2005 talks about "...a new, but largely unpublicized, regulation restricting the sale of oil-based, or alkyd, paint in the mid-Atlantic region. It's a measure aimed at reducing ground-level ozone pollution, but it's one that many consumers and painters were unaware of until oil paint just started vanishing."

Why oil is being phased out: "Not all painters are wedded to oil-based paint, as it smells, it's harder to clean up and it dries so hard that it can crack rather than breathe with the typical expansion and contraction that weather can cause. There have also been great strides in the quality of water-soluble latex paint in recent years, in part because manufacturers have known for at least a decade that this regulation was coming. Oil paint accounted for 16.5 percent of the market in 2003, according to the Commerce Department, down from 18 percent in 1997."

So oil is out, latex is in and the newest kind of paint to hit the shelves is "green" paint or low-VOC.

What are VOCs?

According to the Environmental Protection Agency: "Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are emitted as gases from certain solids or liquids. VOCs include a variety of chemicals, some of which may have short- and long-term adverse health effects. Concentrations of many VOCs are consistently higher indoors (up to ten times higher) than outdoors. VOCs are emitted by a wide array of products numbering in the thousands. Examples include: paints and lacquers, paint strippers, cleaning supplies, pesticides, building materials and furnishings, office equipment such as copiers and printers, correction fluids and carbonless copy paper, graphics and craft materials including glues and adhesives, permanent markers, and photographic solutions.

What do VOCs do?

According to the Environmental Protection Agency: "Eye, nose, and throat irritation; headaches, loss of coordination, nausea; damage to liver, kidney, and central nervous system. Some organics can cause cancer in animals; some are suspected or known to cause cancer in humans. Key signs or symptoms associated with exposure to VOCs include conjunctival irritation, nose and throat discomfort, headache, allergic skin reaction, dyspnea, declines in serum cholinesterase levels, nausea, emesis, epistaxis, fatigue, dizziness."

Big eek!

So I went with no-VOC paint. The verdict: the smell is not nearly as strong; my eyes aren't tearing nor does my chest feel tight or wheezy. And best of all? Instead of needing to let my apartment air out for a week I went back home after 48 hours. What a huge difference!

Where to get VOC-free paint

Home Depot has a line, Freshaire, as does Benjamin Moore called Aura. I used a low VOC paint from California Paints that I got from a neighborhood hardware store. The Wall Street journal had a nice round up of eco-friendly paints recently with a handy chart about who makes what for how much.