April 3, 2008

Non-Toxic Paints

by Jacqueline Sohn

Indoor air is three times more polluted than outdoor air,

and according to the EPA, is considered to be one of the top 5 hazards to human health.

Paints and finishes are among the leading causes. Paints and finishes release low level toxic emissions into the air for years after application. The source of these toxins is a variey of VOC’s (Volatile Organic Compounds) which, until recently, were essential to the performance of the paint.

New environmental regulations, and consumer demand, have led to the development of low-VOC and zero-VOC paints and finishes. Most paint manufacturers now produce one or more non-VOC variety of paint.

Green Seal is a non-profit, standards development body that provides objective, science-based guidance to the marketplace and to consumers. Green Seal meets the EPA’s Criteria for Third Party Certifiers, and is the U.S. member of GEN which consists of 26 of the world’s leading ecolabeling programs. A Green Seal Certification Mark on a product means that it has gone through a stringent evaluation process from the raw materials to manufacturing to recycling and disposal, including on-site plant visits. The Green Seal organization sets much more stringent standards than the EPA for acceptable VOC levels in paint. For interior flat paint, the EPA allows levels of 250 grams per liter (g/L) while Green Seal allows only 50 g/L. Another important benefit is that Green Seal prevents the use of the following chemicals in the production of the paint:

Halomethanes (methylene chloride)

Chlorinated ethanes (1,1,1-trichloroethane)

Aromatic solvents (benzene, toluene (methylbenzene), ethylbenzene)

Chlorinated ethylenes (vinyl chloride)

Polynuclear aromatics (naphthalene)

Chlorobenzenes (1,2-dichlorobenzene)

Phthalate esters (di (2-ethylhexyl) phthalate, butyl benzyl phthalate, di-n-butyl phthalate, di-n-octyl phthalate, diethyl phthalate, dimethyl phthalate)

Miscellaneous semi-volatile organics (isophorone)

Heavy metals and their compounds (antimony, cadmium, hexavalent chromium, lead, mercury)

Preservatives (formaldehyde)

Ketones (methyl ethyl ketone, methyl isobutyl ketone)

Miscellaneous volatile organics (acrolein, acrylonitrile)


Health. Reduced toxins benefit everyone, including those with allergies and chemical sensitivities.

Environment. Reduces landfill, groundwater and ozone depleting contaminants.

Water-Based. Easy cleanup wtih soap and warm water.

Little or No Hazardous Fumes. Low odor during application; no odor once cured. No off-gassing. Painted areas can be occupied sooner, with no odor complaints.

Not Deemed Hazardous Waste. Cleanup and disposal greatly simplified.

Types of Non-Toxic Paints and Finishes

The term “non-toxic” is used here in its broadest sense. With paints and finishes, it’s more a matter of degree. Even Zero-VOC formulations contain some small amounts of toxins. Here are three general categories of non-toxic (or low-toxic) paints: Natural Paints, Zero VOC, and Low VOC

Natural Paints and Finishes – These are paints made from natural raw ingredients such as water, plant oils and resins, plant dyes and essential oils; natural minerals such as clay, chalk and talcum; milk casein, natural latex, bees’ wax, earth and mineral dyes. Waterbased natural paints give off almost no smell. The oil-based natural paints usually have a pleasant fragrance of citrus or essential oils. Allergies and sensitivities to these paints is uncommon. These paints are the safest for your health and for the environment.

The Real Milk Paint Company non-toxic paint made with milk protein, lime, clay and earth pigments.

Aglaia – Natural finishes for many applications, from high quality wall paints to specialty paints for plasters or glazing. (

Livos – Organic paint, stains, oils and waxes made using all natural ingredients. Coatings are linseed oil and citrus oil based, non toxic, low VOC and are designed primarily for wood. (

Auro – Solvent-free, water-based natural paints and primers, finishes, stains and adhesives. (

EcoDesign’s BioShield – Line of natural paints and finishes. (

Weather-Bos – Line of natural stains, finishes and paints. Blends of natural oils and resins designed to adhere to the wood, forming a monolithic bond. (

SoyGuard – soy-based exterior stains, water repellants and sealers for wood surfaces. (

Silacote – made from natural mineral compounds, for use on masonry, concrete and wallboard; interior/exterior. (

Anna Sova natural paints from milk casein, titanium dioxide and food-grade ingredients. (

Green Planet Paints – natural clay paints for interiors using unique Mayan clay pigments. (

Zero VOC – Any paint with VOC’s in the range of 5 grams/litre or less can be called “Zero VOC”, according to the EPA Reference Test Method 24. Some manufacturers may claim “Zero-VOC’s”, but these paints may still use colorants, biocides and fungicides with some VOC’s.

Adding a color tint usually brings the VOC level up to 10 grams/liter, which is still quite low.

Ecoshield– Zero-VOC, low odor, ethylene glycol-free interior paints. Primer, flat, lowsheen, and semi-gloss. Manufactured by Dunn-Edwards. (

Benjamin Moore Pristine EcoSpec – Zero-VOC, under 1 gram/liter. Flat, eggshell, semigloss finishes and a primer.

Best Paint Company Zero-VOC Interior paints, primers and specialty products (faux glaze, varnish replacement, etc) and Low-VOC Exterior paints and primers. (

Green Planet Paints – Zero-VOC, clay-based interior paints. (

ICI Decra-Shield – exterior zero-VOC paints. (800 984-5444)

Kelly-Moore Enviro-Cote – ENVIRO-COTE line of paints are zero-VOC. (916 921-0165)

American Pride Zero-VOC interior latex and acrylic enamel paints. (

Sherwin Williams – new HARMONY line of zero-VOC low-odor latex interior paints. Flat, eggshell, semi-gloss and primer. (

Olympic Paint and Stain – Zero-VOC Olympic Premium interior line.

Yolo Colorhouse – Zero-VOC, low-odor, premium interior paint. (

Low VOC – Low VOC paints, stains and varnishes use water as a carrier instead of petroleum-based solvents. As such, the levels of harmful emissions are lower than solvent-borne surface coatings. These certified coatings also contain no, or very low levels, of heavy metals and formaldehyde. The amount of VOC’s varies among different “low-VOC” products, and is listed on the paint can or MSDS. Paints and stains, to meet EPA standards. must not contain VOCs in excess of 200 grams per litre. Varnishes must not contain VOCs in excess of 300 grams per liter. As a general rule, low VOC paints marketed by reputable paint manufacturers usually meet the 50 g/L VOC threshold. Paints with the Green Seal Standard (GS-11) mark are certified lower than 50 g/L. Low VOC paints will still emit an odor until dry. If you are particularly sensitive, make sure the paint you buy contains fewer than 25 grams/liter of VOC’s.

Benjamin Moore Aura – Low VOC’s, covers most surfaces in a single coat, durable, scrubbable. (

Benjamin Moore Saman – water-based wood stains

Cloverdale Horizon – Flat, Eggshell, Semi-Gloss interior enamels

Cloverdale EcoLogic – Low VOC’s, under 10 grams/liter. Flat, Eggshell, Semi-Gloss interior.

MAB Paints – Enviro-Pure Interior Latex Zero VOC line

Miller Paint – Acro Solvent Free Interior Acrylic line

Vista Paint – Carefree Earth Coat line

PPG Architectural Finishes – Pittsburgh Paints Pure Performance line

Ethylene Glycol – a solvent used in latex paints, is listed as a hazardous substance and a toxic air contaminant under many federal and state regulations. A clear, colorless, odorless liquid, ethylene glycol and its vapor can be toxic to humans. Exposure may cause irritation to the skin, eyes, nose, throat and lungs, and allergic reactions are possible. Overexposure could lead to nausea, vomiting, drowsiness, coma, and respiratory failure. Repeated overexposure can permanently damage the kidneys. Among the major latex paint brands, the full line Dunn-Edwards paints is ethylene glycol-free.


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