Avoiding Paint Fumes  

Painting and paint fumes can expose you to many dangerous chemicals. The type and amount you’re exposed to depends on the kind of paint you use and how you apply it.

Fortunately, there are steps you can take to reduce your exposure to these toxic fumes. 

In Part I of Avoiding Paint Fumes I cover general info on paint, the chemicals released into your air when you paint, the VOC levels in paint and why low and zero VOC paint, although less toxic, are not non toxic.

The Parts Of Paint

Paint's made up of four different types of ingredients, pigments, binders, additives and solvents.

Pigments are for color and they’re in the hard coating that remains on your walls after the paint has dried.

Different pigments are used to make different colors of paint. For example, titanium dioxide is the pigment used to make white paint and tintable base paints. Black paint is made from a pigment called carbon black.

Binders hold the paint together so that the pigment forms a film that will stick to your walls. Binders are either synthetic or natural resins, like alkyds, epoxies, oils. Most binders in paint are types of plastic like acrylics, vinyl-acrylics, vinyl acetate/ethylene, polyurethanes, polyesters.

Additives are added to make paints easier to apply, faster-drying, or resistant to mold and mildew. Types of additives include biocides and phthalates.

A solvent is something that dissolves something else. In paint, the solvent's job is to dissolve all the ingredients into a liquid that spreads easily. Once you apply paint to your walls the solvents are supposed to evaporate, so that paint dries.

The types of solvents traditionally used in paint include diethylene glycol monomethyl ether, propylene glycol, ethylene glycol, xylene, toluene, ethyl acetate and acetone.

Solvent-based paints are also called oil-based. Water-based paints (called acrylic or latex) use water as the solvent but small amounts of dangerous solvents can be in the mix.

It is the evaporation of solvents that create paint fumes.

Paint Fumes 

So why does paint smell so bad? Well, turning a liquid to a solid requires evaporation. And some chemicals that evaporate from your paint, especially the solvents, smell bad (and are really bad for your health).

Organic (Carbon based) substances that evaporate easily into your air are called Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs). Paint fumes are made up of the VOCs that are released from the paint you are applying, both as you’re painting and for months afterward.

And your average can of interior latex wall paint contains high levels of VOCs, over 200 grams per litre. Since the solvents in paints are organic they make up a large portion of the VOCs that are released into your air from paint.

High VOC Paints

Before low and zero VOC interior paints became available, high VOC paints were the norm. The worst were and are oil-based paints, but water-based latex paints also release high levels of toxic VOCs.

The types of VOCs released from high VOC paint depends on the solvents used in these paints. Generally though, the paint fumes from high VOC paint contain a dangerous combination of carcinogens, lung, liver, neuro and skin toxins and endocrine disruptors.

Oil Based paints are especially scary. They are high VOC paints that create fumes containing neurotoxins like naptha (that can make up a third of the paint) and carcinogens like ethylbenzene. 

Some of the specific chemicals that can be found in paint fumes include

  • Diethylene glycol monomethyl ether, a neurotoxin and liver and reproductive toxin. Besides breathing it in from paint fumes, it Can also be absorbed through your skin.

  • Benzene, a solvent ingredient which is commonly added to paint to help it dry more quickly. It is highly toxic when inhaled, and is known to cause cancer and leukemia. Benzene can also affect the central nervous system.

  • Xylene, which is toxic to your blood, kidneys, liver, mucous membranes, bone marrow and your central nervous system (CNS). Repeated or prolonged exposure can damage organs like your liver and lungs.

  • Vinyl acetate, which severely irritates your eyes, skin, and respiratory tract. Inhalation can cause excess fluid to collect in your lungs, making it difficult to breath. Long term exposure may cause liver and lung damage. This chemical can also pass through your skin. Similar solvents and petroleum-based chemicals have been shown to cause brain and nerve damage.

  • Polypropylene glycol, a type of glycol ether. Exposure to glycol ethers may cause developmental and reproductive effects.

Fortunately, there’s really no good reason to expose yourself to high levels of dangerous paint fumes. There are lots of great low and zero VOC interior paint options easily available.

Low And Zero VOC Paint

According to the EPA, the level of VOCs in a “Low VOC” paint must be less than 200 grams per liter. Any paint with VOC's in the range of 5 grams/liter or less can be called "Zero VOC".

When I first started using low VOC paints many, many years ago, they were pretty bad. Coverage and durability were terrible so you had to apply multiple coats. Plus, there were very few options available.

Luckily, low and zero VOC interior paints are now more common than high VOC paints and work just as well.  

But, low VOC paints may still contain solvents that release cancer-causing VOCs. And the VOCs released in low VOC paint often include endocrine disrupting phthalates. For example, low-VOC waterproofing paint often contains butyl benzyl phthalate, an endocrine disruptor and possible carcinogen. 

Zero VOC paints are one of the best options if you want to avoid paint fumes when your painting your walls. Just remember, they still may contain toxic ingredients. 

Both Colorhouse and Safecoat offer a line of less toxic paints and primers.

1. There Are Toxic Chemicals In Paint That Aren’t VOCs

Just because a chemical in paint doesn’t create toxic paint fumes, doesn’t make it safe.

  • Some paints, for example, contain ammonia and acetone which are dangerous to your health, yet they're not classified as VOCs.
  • To get paint to do what it’s supposed to do without using chemicals that create high levels of VOCs means using more toxic additives.
  • Fungicides and biocides are toxic chemicals added to paint to extend its shelf life and for paint used in made for high-moisture places like bathrooms.

For example, Low VOC Mold & Mildew-Proof Interior Paint often contains the biocide mixture Methylisothiazolinone  and Methylchloroisothiazolinone (biocide preservative),  The EPA's Office of Pesticide Program considers this mixture as highly toxic.

2. Paint Often Contains Ingredients Of Unknown Toxicity 

Material Data Safety Sheets (MDSS) are required for products that contain ingredients that are proven to be toxic. But you'll often find the statement “Contains Ingredients of Unknow Toxicity” on the MDSS followed by a percentage of the total ingredients. 

This means that many of the chemicals in paint have not been tested for their safety. There's no evidence that they're toxic (and no evidence that they're safe).

Since they are not yet labeled as toxic they don't have to be listed as ingredients on the MDSS. What you will see is the percentage of the paint chemicals that fall under this category. Sometimes this can be a third of the ingredients in paint.

3. Paint Manufacturers Hide Secret Ingredients in Your Paint

Some of the ingredients in paint may fall under the label proprietary or trade secrets. That means they don’t have to be identified, even if they are toxic.

In my research, I’ve seen anywhere from 30% - 60% of the ingredients in some paints listed as proprietary.

4. Pretty Colors Increase VOCs

Since many of the MDSS sheets are for white or untinted paint, the pigments used to color paint the way you want are unknown. Some of them may be toxic. An example is Carbon Black, suspected of causing cancer, that is found in dark tinted paint.

Tinting your paint with pigments can also increase the VOCs released. Standard tints contain the solvent ethylene glycol.

The lowest VOCs are in the white base paint. Tinting your paint a light color won’t significantly raise the paint's overall VOC level. However, the darker the shade you pick, the higher the level of solvents.

5. Spray Applying Any Type of Paint is a Bad Idea.

Latex paints contain things like crystalline silica, titanium dioxide, and talc.  Although these are naturally occurring minerals, inhaling them can cause lung disease and possibly cancer.

These are considered safe in liquid form so if you paint with a brush or roller there’s less danger of inhaling the small particles of these minerals. However, if you use a sprayer, the mist from the nozzle exposes you to these carcinogens. 

Natural Paint Options

The least toxic type of paints are 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.

There are several companies that make natural paints. I’ve not tried any of them so I don’t know what type of results you’ll get, but here are two companies that have been around for years.

Green Planet Paints offer natural paints for interiors based on plants and minerals. Ingredients - Water Soy Resin Marble Dust Clay Encapsulated Titanium Dioxide Diatomaceous Earth Alumino-silicates Soy Lecithin  Soy-based

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

Tips For Avoiding Paint Fumes

  • Always use zero VOC or natural paint
  • Paint your walls with lighter coolers
  • Never apply paint with a sprayer
  • Avoid skin contact with paint
  • Read the MDSS for the paint you want to use to find out the toxic chemicals in it.

Zero VOC paints are great options for avoiding toxic paint fumes when you're painting your walls. Just remember, they still may contain toxic ingredients that aren't VOCs, that haven't been tested for safety or are a secret. And mixing in pigments can up the VOC level.

In Part II of Avoiding Paint Fumes I cover the cocktail of chemicals found in specialty paints and the dangerous paint fumes they release.

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