Paints are mixtures of pigments for color, resins for binding power, and other additives to make paints easier to apply, faster-drying, or resistant to mold and mildew. These
ingredients are dissolved in either water or organic solvents. Although solvent-based paints (also called oil-based) are much more hazardous than water-based (called
acrylic or latex) paints, many water-based paints contain some solvents.
There are many new safer paint products available today. The following information will help you learn why to
look for less toxic paints, where to find them, and how to protect your health during any painting project.
What are the Health Concerns?
Volatile Organic Compounds
Oil-based paints and other petroleum-based products have vapors that are harmful when breathed. These vapors are called volatile organic compounds, or
VOCs. Volatile organic compounds in paints can cause headaches, eye irritation, nausea, dizziness, and fatigue. Long-term exposure can lead to more serious
health problems like central nervous system, liver, and kidney damage. Paint vapors pose a higher risk for pregnant women, young children, people with
respiratory ailments, and individuals with high rates of exposure, such as commercial painters.
Some of the solvents in paints that result in high levels of VOCs are ethylene, toluene, xylene, acetone, and methylene chloride.
Additives to paints are another potential health risk.
Preservatives and pesticides are added to kill mildew and bacteria. These additives can be harmful to
environmentally sensitive people, who may want to order special low-toxic paints. For a list of low-toxic paint suppliers around the country, see
the Sustainable Building Sourcebook.
Latex paints contain crystalline silica, which when inhaled causes lung disease such as silicosis and possibly cancer. To avoid breathing in silica, wear a
respirator approved for protection against crystalline silica dust.
Heavy Metals: Mercury and Lead
Before 1990, mercury was added as a mildew-inhibitor, mainly to latex paint. Because mercury is highly toxic to people and builds up in the environment, it
is no longer allowed in paint. Older paints (before 1990) may contain mercury and should not be used indoors; for disposal, bring them to
HazoHouse at the Thurston County Waste and Recovery Center.
Lead, another highly toxic metal, was widely used in paint as a pigment and drying agent up until 1978. Breathing or eating lead can cause reduced growth, hearing loss, and impaired learning ability.
Test all surfaces that could contain lead by purchasing a test kit at a paint or hardware store (cost is around $5.00). Any sanding, scraping, or remodeling
planned for a house built before 1978 must be carried out with special precautions, or lead poisoning could result. Hire a professional to remove lead-based paint.
Volatile organic compounds in paint add to smog formation. Sunlight reacts with volatile organic compounds to create ground level ozone and smog. Ozone also contributes to lung disease. On summer days
when ozone is high, health officials recommend that even healthy people refrain from outdoor activity. Because of these problems, government agencies have
limited VOC levels in architectural paints, from 50 grams per liter (g/l) for flat interior paint to 250 g/l for anti-corrosive paints.
Before You Paint
Choose water-based over oil-based paint whenever possible.
- Select the least toxic, lowest VOC paints available, especially for indoor paint jobs. Ask at your paint store for help.
- Read the labels carefully before you buy. Even latex, low-VOC paints can contain toxic ingredients.
- Read all the directions on the label and follow them carefully.
- Avoid spray painting.
- Do not use exterior paint indoors.
- Test for lead on any surfaces that were painted more than 20 years ago. Use lead-safe preparation methods.
- Turn off air conditioning and cover with plastic. Air conditioners do not filter indoor air.
While You Paint
- Keep windows open and use an exhaust fan placed in the window to pull the inside air out of the room.
- Use the protective gear specified on the label, such as gloves, goggles, and a respirator with the proper filter. Dust masks do not protect against solvent vapors or crystalline silica.
- Take frequent fresh air breaks.
- Keep pregnant women and young children away from freshly painted rooms.
- Keep paint cans tightly closed when not in use.
- Take extra precautions if using oil-based paint (the label will say “Warning: Flammable” or “Caution: Combustible”). Not only are the health
risks greater with solvent-based paints, there is an added danger of fire. Eliminate all sources of
flames and sparks, and don’t smoke. Keep used rags in sealed containers until you can dispose of them.
- Keep paints and other hazardous supplies out of children's reach.
After You Paint
- Ventilate freshly painted areas for 48-72 hours (2-3 days).
- Children, individuals with breathing problems, and pregnant women should avoid freshly painted areas for 2-3 days. Even after paint looks dry and doesn’t smell, it still emits vapors for several days.
- Save small amounts of leftover paint for touch-ups.
- HazoHouse does not accept latex paint. Latex paint can be placed in the
trash after contents
dried up or solidified. Liquid latex paints and stains can spill
while awaiting collection or during the collection
process. Paint leaking into trucks and onto roadways
poses tremendous cleanup challenges. Any liquid or
soft paint will be left as unacceptable by trash
collection crews. Remove lids from cans so your
hauler can see that the can is empty or contents are
To dry out paint, mix in mulch, kitty litter, sand, shredded paper,
or similar substances to
solidify paint. Some hardware and paint stores carry
packets of paint solidifier that cost just a few
dollars. Follow the directions on the packet. Once
paint is a tacky, oatmeal-like consistency, and will
not spill out, it is ready for disposal.
Tips for Reducing Mildew
Painting over the mildew that grows on your siding hides the ugly black fungus temporarily, but it will quickly reappear. The trick to getting rid of mildew permanently is to kill the mold first, then prep and paint carefully to keep it from returning. Here's how:
- Never paint over existing mildew. Scrub it off with a mixture of one part bleach and three parts water.
- Always prime bare wood, which mold needs for nutrients. Paint experts recommend a high-quality acrylic-latex primer.
- Apply two substantial topcoats of satin-finish paint to seal off the siding. Avoid flat-finish paints, which are more porous, and use darker colors if possible.
- Avoid painting when it's breezy. Airborne mildew spores can get into the fresh paint. And, because brush marks can trap nutrients that mildew feeds on, smooth paint out.
Notes for Apartment Dwellers
Painting in apartments is a special issue because the paint vapors move as “shared air” between units. Painters should be aware that harmful gases
can move through common walls through gaps around pipes and electrical outlets. For renovation projects where the building must be occupied during the work,
zero- or low-VOC paint products allow work to go on without getting complaints from occupants in the building about odor, dizziness, or nausea.
- Give advance notice to neighbors that a unit is to be painted.
- Inspect painted units to ensure that ventilation is maintained during painting and for at least 2 to 3 days afterwards.
- Loan box fans to residents who are painting their apartments. Problems may be reduced if all apartments being painted, as well as neighboring apartments, are vented to the outdoors with box fans.
Choosing Low VOC Paints
Many paint manufacturers have formulated paints that are either solvent-free or very close to it. According to industry studies, some of these zero or
low-VOC paints perform better than regular formulation latex paint. They reportedly are more durable, dry a little faster, and are easier to scrub than
regular formula paints. If you are concerned about health effects or odors, look for a brand with a VOC content of less than 50 grams VOC per liter, including tinting.
Be aware that some brands may say “No Odor,” yet still contain a high level of VOCs. The manufacturers have selected VOCs that do not have a noticeable
scent, yet are still hazardous. Others that say "no odor" are indeed specially formulated to be low in VOCs. Check the label carefully!
A Hint About Tints
If you are having your paint color specially mixed, note that most paint stores add standard ICI tints to the white paint brand you have selected. These
tints contain the solvent ethylene glycol. A small amount of tint - say the amount needed for a pastel shade - will not significantly raise the paint's
overall VOC level. However, the darker the shade you desire, the higher the level of solvents. For the absolutely lowest VOCs, you can always stick with the base white color.
The following is a partial list of low- or zero-VOC paints available in Thurston County. As consumers request these paints, and as the paint
manufacturers create new formulas, new solvent-free paints continue to become available. If you visit a dealer that does not carry the low-VOC paint their parent company makes, they may be able to order it.
Zero and Low VOC Paints Available in Thurston County