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Choosing natural paint costs more than conventional paint, but it contains only natural plant-, mineral- or even milk-based ingredients that will release fewer or no volatile organic compounds (VOCs) into the air when you paint, which contribute to ground-level ozone pollution and carry potential health risks.

Find it! Natural paint

Whether it's made with soy byproducts, milk, or clay, these natural wall color options are healthy for your home, your family, and the planet. Natural paints are generally more expensive than conventional paints and aren’t always widely available, but can be ordered online.

Before you buy

Using natural paints can be more complicated than using conventional paints because their properties and consistencies may differ from mainstream paint. But the look, feel, and unique variations can produce an incredible effect!

Also note that though natural paints contain fewer VOCs than conventional options, they may still be made with ingredients that require some safety precautions. Some plant oils may be irritants, such as citrus and orange, and lime (the mineral not the citrus fruit), an ingredient in some of these paints, is caustic.

Choosing natural paint helps you go green because…

  • Compared to conventional, synthetic paints, these paints contain only natural, raw, plant-, or mineral-based ingredients.
  • These paints contain no petroleum-derived products.
  • They have low- or no-VOCs, so fewer chemicals are released into the air that can hurt the environment as well as damage human and animal health.

In 2005, more than 850 million gallons of indoor and outdoor paint was sold for use on residential, commercial, institutional and industrial buildings.[1] The main environmental issue with paint is that much of it contains volatile organic compounds (VOCs). These largely man-made chemicals found in many household products and in gasoline evaporate easily into the air.[2] VOCs contribute significantly to ground-level ozone (smog) production and particular health problems.[3] Ground-level ozone also harms ecosystems and vegetation, accounting for an estimated $500 million in reduced crop production each year in the United States.[4]

Natural paints represent an alternative to conventional paints. Often, though not always, low- or zero-VOC, they are made from natural raw ingredients such as plant oils, natural latex, beeswax, plant dyes, milk protein, and natural minerals like clay and chalk. Natural wall finishes are probably the greenest paint choice in terms of being the safest for the environment and for human health.

Related health issues

People can be exposed to very high pollutant levels while they are using products with VOCs and high levels can remain in the air long after the activity has ceased. Studies of VOCs have found that levels of several chemicals average two to five times higher inside than outside. Levels may be 1,000 times background outdoor levels during, and for several hours after, paint stripping.

Health effects from VOCs vary greatly depending upon the amount of chemicals in the air, time exposed, a person’s susceptibility, and existing medical conditions. Immediate symptoms that people have experienced soon after exposure include eye, throat, or lung irritation, headaches, dizziness and vision problems. Some of these chemicals are known to cause cancer in animals and may be carcinogenic in humans. Young children, people with breathing problems and pregnant women should avoid paint vapors.

The ground-level ozone or smog that forms when VOCs react with nitrogen oxide (NOx) gases in the presence of sunlight and hot weather also create health effects. Breathing ozone can cause chest pain, throat irritation, coughing, and congestion as well as worsen asthma, bronchitis, and emphysema. Studies have also shown damage to lung tissue from ozone that may take several days after exposure for total recovery.

Additionally, lung tissue may be permanently scarred from repeated exposure. Children and adults who are active outside, people with unusual susceptibility to ozone as well as those with asthma or other respiratory diseases are at risk from ground-level ozone.

When considering air flow in a space to be painted, don’t count on your air conditioning or heating system to remove contaminants, as most systems only recirculate air. Bringing in fresh air and moving paint vapors out is particularly important for those who live in apartments or condominiums. Vapors can move across common walls, ceilings and floors, through electric outlets, and spaces around pipes. A few safety precautions, taken when using any kind of paint, will minimize exposure to VOCs:

  • Plan your painting project for dry spells in the spring or fall when you can leave windows open while painting and for two to three days after as paint continues to off-gas.
  • Take fresh air breaks often as you work.
  • Use window-mounted box fans to vent vapors out the window or place a fan (set at moderate speed) in the doorway of the room being painted, blowing into the room.
  • Never use exterior paints in inside spaces.
  • Start painting near the window farthest from the fan with windows open and move toward the fan, finishing that area last.
  • If you don’t have fans, make sure the area is cross ventilated to allow air to flow through.
  • With oil-based paints, simple dust mask will not protect against solvent vapors; use a respirator labeled NIOSH/MSHA Approved for Organic Vapors.

Glossary

  • ground-level ozone: The main component of smog, ground-level ozone is formed when volatile organic compounds (VOCs) react chemically with nitrogen oxides (NOx) when it is sunny and hot outside. Many urban areas have high levels of this summertime pollutant but rural areas can have increased ozone levels too as wind can carry ground-level ozone hundreds of miles from where it originates.
  • nitrogen oxide (NOx): A group of highly reactive colorless, odorless gases that form when fuel is burned at high temperatures. The most common man-made sources of NOx are motor vehicles, electric utilities, and other industrial, commercial and residential sources that burn fuels.
  • volatile organic compounds (VOCs): Organic solvents that easily evaporate into the air. VOCs are emitted by thousands of products including paints, cleaning supplies, pesticides, building materials and furnishings and they may cause immediate and long-term health problems.

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