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Indoor air quality affected by paints and finishes


Last updated 2/7/2008 at Noon

Indoor air quality has become a big issue as homes and buildings become more energy efficient. Sealing air leaks from windows, doors and attics keeps indoor temperatures more consistent and saves money on utilities — but it also traps toxins and odors, allowing them to build up over time.

Even if you do not suffer from extreme chemical sensitivity, it is a good idea to consider the sources of indoor pollution that can contribute to allergies, sleep problems and a constant low-level assault on your immune system. Children are especially susceptible to problems.

Beware of formaldehyde. While not a smelly as in your high-school dissection lab, formaldehyde shows up in paints, glues, sealers and finishes – along with other permanently off-gassing chemicals that have come to be known as VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds).

The EPA has set guidelines for acceptable levels of VOCs in products, but VOC is defined as any chemical that, when released into the atmosphere (outdoors), can mix with nitrous oxide and produce ozone and smog. It does not refer at all to indoor air quality.

There are many volatile, toxic chemicals that off-gas into the home that do not meet the EPA definition – including acetone and ammonia – which are included in many paints and finishes. Some paint manufacturers even include formaldehyde precursors, which are non-volatile in the can but create formaldehyde as they dry. Tricky, but legal, unfortunately.

When choosing indoor paints and finishes, it is as usual, a case of “buyer beware.” San Diego-based AFM/Safecoat produces all their paints and finishes without the use of any regulated or unregulated toxins – specifically to address indoor air quality issues. Their products can be used over other paints and finishes to seal in the off-gassing chemicals.

BioShield makes a whole line of paints, finishes, plasters, milk paints, even household cleaning supplies that contain no toxins.

If you are painting something for the first time, consider old-fashioned milk paint. It gives a nice informal look and is available from several reputable manufacturers (or you can make your own if you are feeling truly rustic).

Among major manufacturers, Dunn Edwards, Sherwin-Williams, Benjamin Moore and Frazee have special low- or no-VOC lines. Not all ingredients are listed on the label. Be sure to ask for an MSDS sheet and check for suspect chemicals (see the list at National Geographic’s Green Guide below) before purchasing for indoor use. They should be fine for outdoor use.


• AFM/Safecoat: http://www.afm

• BioShield: http://www.bioshield

• The National Geographic Green Guide has a (2003) listing of some low-/no-VOC paints and toxic chemicals to look for:

• Milk paint: and

• Make your own milk paint:


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