Behind the label: Interior paints

Thinking of brightening up your house for spring? Think again, there’s a lot more to paint than meets the eye. Pat Thomas reports

A fresh coat of paint is a quick, cost-effective way to give even the scruffiest space a new lease on life. Yet we seldom stop to consider the ingredients that make up the average tin of interior paint. Many cases of sick building syndrome have been traced to the chemicals in interior paints, which include solvents and other volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

The ‘clean’ smell of new paint is actually vapour released from these chemicals as the paint dries. This offgassing can carry on for months and even years after the paint has been applied.

Common VOCs in paints, primers and varnishes include benzene, formaldehyde, kerosene, ammonia, toluene, and xylene, all of which are known carcinogens and neurotoxins. Exposure to VOCs can irritate your eyes, nose, throat and skin and are proven to increase allergies, asthma, and respiratory problems, central nervous system symptoms (such as headache, rapid heartbeat) and even weaken the immune system. They can also be harmful to the liver and kidneys. In addition, it is now known that it is possible for two or more ‘less harmful’ VOC’s to combine to create a more powerful toxin.

Research last year in the journal Thorax showed that exposure to VOCs increase the risk of childhood asthma. Swedish research published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine in 2002 shows that people in the painting trades or who work in paint manufacturing may have an increased risk of various cancers. For men the risk was greater for bladder and lung cancer, for women cancers of the oesophagus, larynx and oral cavity were more common.

In terms of its environmental impact, for every ton of paint produced, the resulting waste can be anything up to 30 tons. Once in the soil or air, this waste can be persistent and toxic.

Household paints contain carrier oils, dispersion agents, viscosity adjusters, thickeners, surface tension adjusters, plasticisers and preservatives and many contain synthetic colours. Some contain antifungal agents such as arsenic disulfide, phenol, formaldehyde, and quaternary ammonium compounds.

Modern emulsions are water-based, with vinyl or acrylic resins added to make them more hardwearing. The amount of resin determines the varying degrees of sheen seen in matt, eggshell, silk and satin finishes. Gloss paints are oilbased and include resins to give them a hardwearing quality.

Forty-four per cent of British householders purchase interior paints more than once a year. In 2003 Britons splashed 83 million litres of paint on their walls, worth £144 million. Americans spend roughly $17 billion on paint a year, equalling about 1.3 billion gallons (5,100 billion litres).

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), ranks paint on its top-five list of environmental hazards and a study conducted by the US agency found that VOC levels indoors can be 1,000 times higher than outdoor levels when an indoor paint is drying. Paint solvents are of particular concern to people with heart conditions because methanol and certain other compounds can stress the heart. Also of note, contact lenses absorb strong vapours and hold them against the eyes, causing irritation and/or damage.

Common ingredients

Acetone: Solvent. Can cause eye, nose and throat irritation, headache, dizziness, dermatitis.

Ammonia: Preservative. Can cause eye, skin and respiratory irritant, and trigger asthma.

Benzene: Solvent. Can cause skin, eye and upper respiratory tract irritation. Neurological symptoms from inhalation include drowsiness, dizziness, headaches, immune system damage, blood disorders; carcinogenic.

Ethylene glycol: Solvent. Can cause central nervous system depression; ingestion causes kidney damage.

Formaldehyde: Preservative. Irritates the eyes, nose and throat; allergic skin reactions; breathing difficulties; carcinogenic.

Methyl alcohol: Solvent. Eye, skin, mucous membrane irritation. Overexposure can provoke headache, drowsiness, nausea, vomiting and blurred vision.

Phenol: Biocide. Can cause mouth, eye, nose and throat irritation; dermatitis, headache, dizziness, muscle ache and pain, tremors and twitches.

Kerosene: Solvent. Can cause eye, skin and respiratory system irritation; dermatitis; anaesthetic; toxic to aquatic life

Ethylene acrylate: Film former, polymer. Can cause irritation to the eyes, respiratory system and skin; potential carcinogen

Propylene glycol: Solvent. Inhalation and skin contact can cause dermatitis with erythema, oedema, and weeping

Quaternary ammonium compounds: Biocide. Can cause skin, eye and nose irritation

Trichloroethylene: Solvent. Central nervous system effects including sleepiness, fatigue, headache, confusion, and feelings of euphoria. Damage to the liver, kidneys, immune and endocrine systems

Vinyl Acetate – Acrylic Copolymer: Film former. Can cause eye, nose and throat irritation, lung damage; convulsions have been observed in rodents inhaling high levels.


Safer alternatives exist. Some contain no chemical solvents, while other, more widely available commercial brands just contain a lower percentage of VOCs than conventional paints. Eco-friendly paints make use of ingredients such as turpentine or d-limonene as alternatives to white spirit. Instead of plastic binders they may use linseed oil and casein and chalk and clay may replace fillers such as titanium dioxide. Colours are often derived from natural earth and mineral pigments.

Auro Organic Paints
Livos paints
Earthborn Paints
Earth & Reed
Nutshell Natural Paints

This article first appeared in the Ecologist May 2007

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