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Building Biology


Since 1993

Finding Safe Paints to Use in Your Home

Interior finishes can contribute significantly to indoor air pollution. Although levels are highest during and just after application, paints continue to emit pollutants for months after application.

The pollutants given off by paints are referred to as Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs).  Volatile because the liquid in the paint turns to a vapor and is released to the air. Organic because these materials are derived from petroleum and contain carbon and hydrogen.

Paints used in home applications are oil based or water based. Oil based paint uses oils to carry or suspend the paint colorant particles during application.  After application the oil begins to evaporate, becoming a VOC.

Water based paint uses water as the primary vehicle for carrying the colorant particles. In order to have the product work successfully, however, hydrocarbon based compounds were required.  These evaporate along with the water and become VOCs. Because the primary carrier is water, the VOCs are less than from oil paint, but still significant. Vaporizing continues in oil paints for three to six months and in water based paints for about a month.

A broad array of materials are used that will produce VOCs such as acrylonitrile, formaldehyde, phthalates, methly keytones, toluene, vinyl chloride and others.  Specifics change as paint manufactures adjust  formulations for economic reasons.

The problem with paint is that many people have an allergic reaction to these VOCs . The reaction can be anything from mild to life threatening.  Among typical reactions are eye, nose and throat irritation, inflammation, breathing difficulty, nausea, mental confusion and short term memory loss. Asthma attacks can be triggered in some people. Symptoms occur when the body sees the chemical as a threat to its well being and releases histamine and other chemicals that cause inflammation and swelling.

Continued exposure to such pollutants causes some people to become 'sensitized' extending the allergic response to many other hydrocarbon pollutants.  They are described as having Multiple Chemical Sensitivities (MCS); they are allergic to the 21st Century.  Exposure to many other substances, such as new carpeting, adhesives, pesticides, solvents, scented products can cause MCS to develop.

Fortunately, five years ago Glidden invented a VOC free, water based paint that performed well. Other paint manufactures followed suit. Current technologies limit no VOC paint to white and light tint paints. Darker paints contain VOCs, but these will be much less if you use a no VOC tinting base and then add the VOC containing dark tinting pigments.

Call the following manufacturers for local sources of these no VOC paints:

Both primer and finish coat paints:



Benjamin Moore




Dunn Edwards


ICI Paints


Miller Paints


Rodda Paints


Sampson Coatings


Sherwin Williams




Finish coat paints only





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