Position Statement – Healthy Paints & Coatings
We believe healthy paints and coatings should only be used when necessary to protect surfaces and/or add to the aesthetic of a space. They should be thoroughly vetted for performance as well as health, and sometimes we must compromise one for the other. We prefer natural over synthetic or petrochemical ingredients, and suggest avoiding biocides (e.g., Triclosan aka “MicroBan”) whenever possible. Healthy Paints and Coating manufacturers that display transparency (e.g., Health Product Declaration, Environmental Product Declaration) and share 3rd-party lab reports should be encouraged. Colors should mimic nature and support the desired emotion and energy level of a space.
In 1978 the federal government prohibited the use of lead in household paint. LEED, in the 1990’s, with new Indoor Environmental Quality credits for low-VOC paints furthered public awareness that paints impact occupant health. Fast forward to the present and paint stores are filled with Low/Zero-VOC paints carrying statements from manufacturers claiming their paints are “healthy” and “zero-VOC.” The fact that we have made this shift in such a relatively short period of time is testimony to our collective effort to make the built environment safer. However, with all these products declaring their safety, how do we know which to choose?
There are a few things to consider when trying to identify a healthy paint. Published VOC levels are one of them, but they do not offer the full picture. Healthy Building Science has provided a summary of what to look for as well as some paints to consider for your next project.
VOCs – Volatile Organic Compounds
Volatile organic compounds is an umbrella term applied to a group of chemicals that contain carbon molecules and evaporate at room temperature. VOCs are found naturally and produced synthetically. The EPA regulates volatile organic compounds that form ground level ozone. Unfortunately, there are many VOCs that the EPA does not regulate, and some of these exempt VOCs are toxic to humans. As a result, a “low-or zero- VOC” coating is referring only to EPA regulated VOCs. We suggest a more comprehensive screening that includes more known and measurable chemicals that can be harmful. One of the ways to do this is to look where VOCs are commonly found – namely solvents, additives, and colorants.
Solvents are the liquid carrier in a coating. Their role is to spread the pigment bound emulsion across the surface being coated. In water-based coatings the solvent is mostly water. In alkyd based coatings the solvent is mostly oil. Water based coatings generally have fewer and less dangerous solvents than oil paints, however they are not without issues. A common chemical used to help liquid infiltrate solid pigments, is ethylene glycol. Healthy paints have replaced ethylene glycol with propylene glycol. Other popular solvents are benzene, xylene, and toluene, all of which are carcinogenic and endocrine disruptors.
Additives are chemicals “added” to the paint to help it perform better. Drying agents are popular additives because they speed up the construction process. They are filled with VOCs and noxious chemicals so if a paint states that it has drying agents, stay away from it.
Colorants are added to the base coat. Many times paints that advertise themselves as low/zero VOCs are only referring to the base coat- not the colorants. Oftentimes colorants contain their own VOCs, so make sure to ask the manufacturer if their colorants are also zero VOC.
It’s a common misperception that all chemical ingredients and VOCs are reported on Safety Data Sheets (SDS). However, SDSs are often sparse with manufacturers only reporting a fraction of actual ingredients. Crosscheck listed ingredients to chemicals listed on CA Prop 65. SDSs do not offer a complete picture of a coating, but they can offer a glimpse.
Mildewcides are included in paint to prevent mold & mildew. The most pervasive of these mildewcides is Triclosan, also known by the trade name “Microban.” There have been a myriad of studies showing Triclosan’s harmful effects on animal endocrine, reproductive and nervous systems as well as its toxic build up in the environment and people. Triclosan has been found in human urine and breast milk as well as in soil and waterways around the world. Despite all this, the EPA does not think there is enough evidence to deem Triclosan enough of a threat to ban it from coatings. This is despite the fact that on September 2nd the FDA banned triclosan as well as 18 other antibacterial substances from soaps.
Look for healthy paints that advertise themselves to be free of mildewcides. Jay Watts, founder of AFM Safecoat states, “most top quality paint won’t suffer from a mold attack unless there is some serious construction breakdown. Mildew can appear but is less of a problem to deal with than mold.” Watts goes on to explain that paint is most susceptible to mildew during the drying and curing cycles. “Best practice is to apply thinner coats and follow the manufacturer’s recommendation on recoat timing. Problems can arise when coats are applied over coats that haven’t dried enough. This embeds moisture in the films which is conducive to contamination.”
Most paints do contain preservatives that prevent the paint from rotting in the can, but Triclosan is supposed to prevent the paint from growing mildew once it is on the wall. Additionally, there is little evidence that Triclosan even works. In 2003 the CDC stated, “no evidence is available to suggest that use of these [antimicrobial] products will make consumers and patients healthier or prevent disease.” In 2006, Kaiser Permanente put out a position statement declaring, “we do not recommend environmental surface finishes or fabrics that contain antimicrobials for the purpose of greater infection control and subsequent prevention of hospital acquired infections.”
We at Healthy Building Science know first hand the dangers of mold growth indoors, but biocides are not the answer.
Third Party Certifications & Transparency
Look for healthy paints and coatings that have green third party certifications such a GreenGuard Children & Schools, SCS Global Services, and the Living Future Institute’s “Declare” label. Additionally, greater transparency with a Health Product Declaration or an Environmental Product Declaration serves as testimony that the respective company is willing to be held accountable for the chemicals it uses. GreenGuard & SCS Global Services have stringent emission standards based on the California Department of Public Health’s 01350 standards and the Living Future Institute’s Declare Label requires manufacturers to list the respective product’s ingredients which abide by the Living Building Challenge’s material safety guidelines.
Below is a list of coatings to consider for your project. Please note that no matter what, it is very important to get a sample before ordering so that you can see how you react to the paint.
ECOS Paints: Zero VOCs includes EPA exempt VOCs, does not contain Microban, has a Health Product Declaration.
AFM Safecoat: Zero VOCs, does not contain Microban, specially formulated for people with chemical sensitivities.
Benjamin Moore Natura: Zero VOCs, does not contain Microban (though a lot BM paints do).
Auro USA: All natural paint company no synthetic volatile organic compounds or mildewcides, all ingredients listed.