What’s so bad about paint? Is there any good paint?
The Short Answer: Most paints are chock-full of potentially harmful chemicals. Dot’s thought? Stick to brands we know are safer, including AFM Safecoat, Caliwell, Ecos, and others.
In my 20s, I splatter painted my apartment’s tiny bathroom in pink, yellow, and blue, then used the leftover paint on kitchen cabinet drawers — a different color for each. (It felt like I was living in a candy store and I loved it. My landlord was less enthused.) In my 30s, I engaged in extensive lobbying to convince my husband that painting our century home’s living room walls a deep brick red wouldn’t lower the value when we eventually sold (and I was right). And in my 40s, I lovingly painted a tiny wooden table and chairs for my children, stenciling affirmations onto the chair backs.
Now in my 50s, my decades-long love affair with paint shows no signs of abating. I am the proud owner of a fan deck of paint colors and will offer my services to anyone who’d like me to help them choose a color. Paint can enliven. It can delight. It can transform. But the sad and unvarnished truth, Tiz, is that paint can also contaminate.
“Manufacturers use somewhere in the vicinity of 50 to 150 chemicals in paint,” Joel Hirshberg tells me over the phone from where he lives in a small community in Iowa. Hirshberg is the founder of Green Building Supply, a 32-year-old company dedicated to vetting and selling building materials that are healthier for us and for the environment. But with building supplies and finishes, he tells me with a deep sigh, it’s not as simple as this-not-that.
Let’s start with VOCs, or volatile organic compounds. You’ve likely noticed that there are, increasingly, paints at your local hardware store that boast low or zero VOCs. (Incidentally, says Hirshberg, not all VOCs are bad. Some are, some aren’t.) But it’s good that paint manufacturers are removing them, right?
Well, yes. But sometimes, Hirshberg explains, an ingredient becomes hard to source. This happened plenty during COVID when supply chains were disrupted, but it also happens when we’re not enduring a global pandemic. If a paint that’s been tested, even certified as zero-VOC, changes its formulation to accommodate a new ingredient, it doesn’t necessarily undergo testing again. Or get recertified. And while Hirshberg isn’t saying that the new formulation is suddenly more toxic than the old one, he‘s not not saying that.
His point? For the average consumer keen to just slap some paint on their walls to freshen their bedroom without inducing migraines, exacerbating asthma, or causing autism or learning disabilities in unborn children, it’s almost impossible to figure out what ingredients are or are not in the brand or formulation we’re considering.
Are you with me so far, Tiz? Perhaps you’re one of Dot’s more savvy readers who know that there are safety data sheets (SDS) online, and that with a bit of time and determination, one could read these SDSs and discern which paint is the healthiest for your family. Maybe. Hirshberg points out that those safety data sheets are filled out voluntarily, and there’s no one verifying their accuracy. What’s more, those sheets were created to protect the safety of employees working with these products — i.e. people with technical knowledge — to answer questions such as What happens if it spills? What happens if it burns? It’s all there, Hirshberg explains, but for a technical audience. Not for someone like me with my B in high school chemistry. In addition, Hirshberg says, the data is by no means complete. “They only list three or four or five chemicals, that’s it,” because manufacturers are only required to reveal or divulge chemicals that are “known hazards.” And hazardous is not the same as toxic. “A hazard is something that has killed 1,000 [people] or more,” he explains. Whereas things that are toxic and can harm you might not necessarily kill you, at least not right away. The Natural Resources Defense Council puts it this way: “Of the more than 80,000 chemicals currently used in the United States, most haven't been adequately tested for their effects on human health.”
Still with me, Tiz? The news gets worse. Because it’s not just VOCs that raise concerns about paint’s impact on human health; it’s also binders, corrosion inhibitors, preservatives, and other things I barely know the meaning or purpose of. Experts warn that pregnant women, babies, and young children are vulnerable to health issues from exposure to some paint. Even if you’re not bothered by the immediate impacts of paint — dizziness, watery eyes, headaches, respiratory problems — the chemicals can be absorbed into our blood and accumulate in our brains and other organs.
But wait, you might say … what about eco-certification programs?
As I’ve noted before, eco-certifications can be an extremely helpful shorthand. Those slapped on paint cans are likely to be Green Seal, Green Guard, Ecologo, LEED, VOC compliant, MPI (Master Painters Institute), and Scientific Certification Systems (SCS), among others. But Hirshberg warns that these certifications aren’t necessarily revisited when formulations change. When certain ingredients become unavailable (as happened not infrequently during Covid), companies make substitutions. But just because an ingredient has changed doesn’t mean the company has had the product recertified.
Hirshberg, Dot deduced during my conversation with him, is a purist. He has no time for “sorta good”, or “less bad” products; he wants products that are as healthy as they can be. He’s a fan, up to a point, of the International Living Future Institute’s “Declare” labels, which require manufacturers of building materials to declare every single ingredient that goes into their products. The problem? Pretty much all certifications, including the Declare label, cost money. Sometimes a lot of money, and it’s per product. “Most paint companies have 30, 40, 50 products,” says Hirshberg, asking me to do the math, which … lol …but I take his point that it can quickly become prohibitively expensive. “It makes it really hard for [those] companies to compete with the big boys.” And by big boys, Hirshberg is referring to the household names — the Benjamin Moores, the Sherwin-Williamses.
What he’s telling us, in his loquacious but charmingly earnest way, is that this stuff is confusing, Tiz. For folks like you and me who maybe just want to splatter paint our rental, it’s a bit of a Wild West in the paint aisle. What he’s also telling us is that, while VOCs have become the symbol of villainy of the paint world, there are other dangers lurking in the shadows. Take, for example, semi volatile organic compounds, or SVOCs. I groan. My head is beginning to pound and it has nothing to do with the paint on my walls. Volatile, Hirshberg explains, means that a product begins to evaporate, to “offgas”, at room temperature. Semi-volatile means that offgassing doesn’t begin until higher temperatures. How high? Well, a sunny day with closed windows might do the trick. Paints asserting that they contain low or no VOCs aren’t taking SVOCs into account. Does it matter? Well, that depends on who you ask. For Hirshberg, the answer is yes.
Are you sorry yet you asked your question, Tiz? Does the whole “ignorance is bliss” philosophy feel more appealing by the second?
But stay with me just a bit longer because Hirshberg isn’t quite done. He wants us to consider that the standards we have in the U.S. are considerably more lax than those in Europe. Why? Hirshberg is going to tell us: “Every single year in every single state, there are laws proposed to reduce chemicals in building materials and to change how we evaluate them and change how we rate them and how we label them.” And can you guess what happens, Tiz? Here’s Hirschberg again: “Every single year they get shut down in every single state because of the lobbyists.” Consumers, he says, “don’t really know what they’re dealing with.”
This is the entire raison d’être of Green Building Supply. To do the work that the rest of us don’t have the time or the expertise to do. To research and field test every product for at least a year. Testers look not only at ingredients, but also at how a product is sourced, how it’s manufactured, how it’s disposed of. They consider certifications, have conversations with chemists, review any pending lawsuits, consult Better Business Bureau reviews. And then, he says, these products have to perform as well as their “more toxic counterparts.” It shouldn’t be this hard, he laments, but it is.
And even then, Tiz, Hirshberg says we need to do our own due diligence — test the products in our own homes, with our own ears and eyes and nose. Is the product DIY friendly enough for us? Does it trigger any of our own environmental sensitivities? “Don’t trust me,” Hirshberg says, “don’t just take my word for it.” Order samples, try them out. Then make a decision.
Hirshberg is heartened somewhat by increased consumer demand for safer products. And he’s proud of the role that his company and others have played in shining a light on the need for safer products.
He’s also somewhat apologetic for talking my ear off. “I don’t know how you’re going to write a short article,” he says.
I guess I didn’t. But, here it is, Tiz, my not-so-short answer to your extremely short question:
What’s so bad about paint is that most options are chock-full of chemicals that are known to potentially cause harm to humans. Is there good paint? Well … all paint products impact our environment. But Hirshberg assures us that there is better paint. A list of paint companies that have passed Green Building Supplies’ literal and metaphorical smell test:
- AFM Safecoat
- Bioshield Clay Paint
With paint, better is about the best we can hope for.