Natural house paints...good enough to eat

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The government classifies household paint as hazardous waste. For a toxic-free zone, use natural paint instead.

In the 1970s Herman Fischer, a chemist connected to the German Green Party, began research into developing the first natural paint. Three decades later, there are now more than 80 natural paint companies around the world. Using recipes similar to those of the earliest known paints used on cave walls, these companies offer an alternative to the standard noxious-smelling and toxic products of conventional manufacturers.

The advantages of natural paint 
1 Renewable and biodegradable ingredients

All natural paints use ingredients that are both biodegradable and from renewable sources. Their principal ingredient is normally linseed oil, which has been used in paint-making for centuries. It is made by crushing flax seeds, and performs the same hardening and drying role as plastics in conventional paints. Some ranges of natural paint can also be clay-, lime- or milk-based. And in contrast to the toxic chemicals used in synthetic paints, natural paints use natural solvents such as d-limonene, which is distilled citrus-peel oil, and turpentine distilled from the resinous sap of pine trees.

2 They’re non-toxic
As synthetic paints dry, toxic Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) evaporate into the air. Not only do natural paints not contain VOCs; some of them are safe to eat, as is often demonstrated by staff working for Holkham Linseed Paints. I wonder whether they do the same at Dulux?

3 They allow surfaces to breathe
Because they don’t contain plastics, natural paints are microporous. Moisture doesn’t get trapped between the paint layer and the surface, so paint is less likely to blister and peel. On wood, natural glosses, which are high in oils instead of the plastics used in synthetic paints, prevent rotting. Well maintained wooden doors and windows coated in natural paint will last much longer than wood treated with uPVC. Natural paints can also deal with damp and condensation problems far better than conventional plastic emulsion wall paints.

4 They’re easy to dispose of
Because they contain very few or no synthetic compounds natural paints are easily biodegradable. Several of them can be dried out and added to your compost heap. Ask your natural paint supplier how best to dispose of their products: unlike the large synthetic paint manufacturers, they will be keen to ensure that their merchandise does minimal damage to the environment.

What is paint made of?
For a paint to work it needs pigment, solvent, binder, filler and drier. The binder dissolves in the solvent to make paint liquid. Filler is added to thicken. Pigment adds colour. And drier speeds the process of drying. Natural paints use either linseed oil, clay, lime or milk protein as a binder. Clay-based paints are very thick and come in earthy colours. Milk paints recreate a ‘historic’ look. The binders used in modern paints tend to be synthetic resins, such as acrylics and epoxies. Natural paints use d-limonene or turpentine as sovlents; and they use chalk as a filler. The most natural of natural paints use only earth and mineral pigments for colour. The earliest natural paints, which used no synthetic compounds, came only in shades of red and blue. To extend the range of colours, some companies add benign synthetic compounds as pigments.

The disadvantages of using natural paint
1 They take longer to apply
As they don’t contain any toxic heavy metals, you may have to wait for 24 hours between coats.

2 They’re aren’t as many colours to chose from
The lack of synthetic dyes in natural paints does slightly restrict the range of colours available. Much depends on which type of natural paint you choose, but broadly speaking companies that only work with minerals offer mainly pastel shades, while ones using non-toxic synthetic pigments have much more extensive colours on offer. If you are fixed on a colour that you can’t find, why not get in touch with Alan at the Green Shop. He says he can match any colour swatch you send with a paint from the Green Paint range. Or you could mix your own at Earth & Reed.

3 They're more expensive
Natural paints can cost as much as twice the price of standard paints. However, some ranges offer emulsions at only 15 per cent more than what you would pay for a branded synthetic paint.

Synthetic paints 
Harmful ingredients

The fumes conventional paints give off as they harden and dry contain VOCs, which are used as fungicides, as well as colour, solvent and spreadability agents. Those used as aromatic solvents in paint are endocrine-disrupting chemicals, and are capable of causing birth defects, reproductive abnormalities or developmental problems in unborn or very young children. Greenpeace has directly linked an increase in VOCs in our atmosphere to the decline of the reproductive function in human and wildlife populations. The most dangerous VOCs in paint are toluene, which has been linked to long-term liver damage, and xylene, which has been linked to foetal damage.

Used as binders in paint, alkylphenols damage human lymphocytes, the blood cells which produce antibodies as a defence against germs. They also disrupt sexual development in some animals, and have been linked to the feminisation of fi sh. The government has called on industry to stop using them.

Used in non-drip paints, polyurethane degrades into toxic chemicals which pass through the food chain and are eventually consumed by humans.

Short-chain chlorinated paraffins (SCCPs)
SCCPs are added to combat the increased flammability of paints laden with volatile solvents. Traces of these compounds have been found in the Arctic. Even at minute concentrations they are very toxic to aquatic life. The EU has defined them as ‘category three carcinogens’: they have a ‘possible risk of irreversible effects’. They are also considered to be ‘non-threshold toxicants’ – ie, substances for which there is believed to be some chance of adverse effects at any level of exposure.

Heavy metals
Heavy metals cut the time it takes for synthetic paint to dry. Repeated low-level exposure of cadmium, widely used in paint as a pigment, can result in permanent kidney damage, emphysema, anaemia and loss of smell. Titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, used especially in ‘brilliant white’ paints and added to most synthetic paints to provide opacity, can cause flu-like symptoms, respiratory problems and skin irritation. In 1987 the World Health Organisation described occupational painting as ‘carcinogenic’, and said painters faced a 40 per cent increased risk of contracting cancer.

Wasteful production
For every tonne of synthetic paint produced, 10 tonnes of waste are created. With speciality paints, as much as 30 tonnes of waste can be created per tonne produced. On top of this, mining for titanium dioxide, a key ingredient in synthetic paints, is environmentally damaging during the purification process and causes severe water pollution.

Disposal problems
Household paint is classified as hazardous waste by the government. Given that between 12 and 25 per cent of such paint remains in the bottom of tins, there’s a huge and mounting toxic waste problem fermenting in homes across the UK. So, if you have any toxic paint left over in your home, don’t throw it away. Take it to your local Community Re>Paint scheme. They collect and redistribute unfinished paint to community centres, charities and voluntary groups all over the country. There are hundreds of collection points all over the UK, find your nearest one at

Natural paint suppliers
AURO: 01452 772020;
AGLAIA: www.naturalpaints
EARTHBORN (pictured):
01928 734171; www.
01449 722255;
01934 844484;
01452 770629;
01328 711348
LILI: 01296 714184;
01929 423801
NATURAL PAINT COLLECTION (available through Green Building Store):
01364 73801;
01296 481220;

This piece first appeared in The Ecologist May 2005

For ethical and sustainable suppliers of Home and Business goods and services check out the Ecologist Green Directory here