From the April/May 2007 Issue:

Color With a Conscience

  • Writer: Lisa Rackley

New paint formulas are more friendly to the environment Just the right shade of paint can transform a room, but it also can negatively effect the air we breathe. As the Green Movement has drawn attention to the problem, many companies have reformulated their paints or introduced new lines that release fewer toxins. Here are some helpful reminders when shopping for paint that is safer for us and the planet.

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enlarge | Safe for All Ages Yolo Colorhouse Ltd. offers zero-VOC paint created by a team of scientists and artists in Oregon. The palette of 43 colors was inspired by nature. A companion line of paint for kid’s rooms and nurseries called Little Yolo is washable and certified by Green Seal. $37 to $39 per gallon. Available at Bettencourt Green Building Products in Brooklyn. For other sources, visit or or call 503-493-8275.
Chemicals to Avoid

VOCs (volatile organic compounds): These chemicals evaporate readily at room temperature and enhance the paint’s spreadability and durability. However, low-level exposure can cause headaches, dizziness, and nausea. Higher levels — such as with auto-spray devices and longer exposure — can permanently damage the kidneys, liver, and nervous and respiratory systems. Outdoors, VOC emissions can harm the environment by reacting with other hydrocarbons, nitrogen oxides, and sunlight to create smog.

Heavy metals, including cobalt, cadmium, and crystalline silica (beach sand): These metals are used when adding pigment and texture to paint or as drying agents. Most aren’t a problem when mixed into the paint, but they are considered carcinogens if inhaled (this could occur when scraping or sanding).

Ammonia or mildewcides: These chemicals inhibit bacteria and mold growth, and they enhance the paint flow off the roller or brush. However, paints with mildewcides may have traces of formaldehyde, an eye and respiratory irritant and carcinogen.

Glycol esters: Used when mixing pigments into base paint, these solvents may cause organ damage if absorbed though the skin or from prolonged exposure.

Phthalates (dibutyl phthalate): While enhancing paint spreadability, these agents also can irritate eyes and skin and are toxic when inhaled or ingested.

Toluene (methyl benzene): When used as a paint solvent, toluene can negatively affect the kidneys, nervous system, and heart.

Read Labels
Don’t assume all low-VOC paints are the same. A low-VOC label merely means the paint meets the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s maximum emission standards of less than 250 grams per liter. Some low-VOC paints have much lower levels.
Low Odor vs. Low VOC

Fumes from some VOCs can be masked to make low-odor paint. However, the paint can still be harmful even if you can’t smell it. It is better to look for paint products with VOC levels below 150 grams per liter.

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enlarge | Hue Horizons Benjamin Moore’s AURA line is designed to be eco-friendly, water- and stain-resistant, streak-free, fast-drying, and easy to apply with no spattering. AURA’s VOC rating is less than 50 grams per liter, far below the 250 grams per liter allowed in the United States. It’s available in any Benjamin Moore color or finish. $54.95 per gallon. Shown: Seedling 1422-450.
Paints to Consider
Latex Paint: Latex paint is made up of hundreds of chemicals, but paint is classified into just two subcategories according to its primary solvent. In latex paint, water is the main solvent. Latex paint has lower VOC ratings then oil-based and alkyd paints, which contain a petroleum solvent. Latex cleans up with soap and water. Oil-based paint has to be cleaned up with special solvents that also can be hazardous.

Natural and Milk-Based Paints: These non-toxic paints have been around for years and contain no VOCs. They are made of earth-, plant-, and milk-based pigments and mostly come in a powder that has to be mixed before use. The paint comes in many colors and can be used for a variety of projects (check with the manufacturer about types of use and product care).

Reblended Paint: This product is made from 100 percent post-consumer content and contains no new resins or colorants. Originally available only in brown or beige, this type of paint now comes in a wider spectrum of colors. You’re never entirely sure what types of paint go into the mix, but it’s good if you have to cover a large area, such as an outbuilding or fence.

Reprocessed Paint: This differs from reblended paint because new resins and colorants are added. Check the label before buying because it may be mixed with some older, higher-VOC paints.

Paint-Exchange Programs: Some communities offer paint-exchange programs to keep the product out of landfills. Go to for recycling programs in your region of New Jersey.

Before You Buy
For details about any paint you’re considering, ask your paint retailer for a material safety data sheet, visit the manufacturer’s website, or call its customer service telephone number.


“Stick with Safe Paint” by Joe Hurst-Wajszczuk, courtesy of Mother Earth News at and It’s Easy Being Green by Crissy Trask (Gibbs-Smith Publishing, 2006).

Some additional companies with safer lines of paint include Bioshield, Glidden, Frazee, Sinan Co., Safecoat, Chem-Safe, Duron, Kelly-Moore Paint, Miller Paint, McCormick, PPG, Rodda, and Sherwin-Williams. See Resources on page 242 for contact information.