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What's in it?

Industry action
The good news is that industry is doing something about the impacts on health of paint. VOCs in paint are measured in grams per litre. Standard off-the-shelf internal paint has a VOC level of around 30-80 g/L for water-based paint and 350-450 g/L for enamel oil-based paint. The Australian Paint Approval Scheme considers a low-odour paint to be one that has a VOC level of 5g/L; however, measurements are based on untinted paint. Good Environmental Choice Australia (GECA) considers a low VOC wall paint to have a VOC level of 16 g/L or less including tints. Adding tints to paints increases the VOCs. The level depends on the type of tint. Darker tints tend to have higher VOCs than lighter tints.

GECA is a third party certification system that reviews products for their environmental impact. A product listed on the GECA database (and there are at least eight paint products listed) has undergone a rigorous process of independent testing and assessment. The GECA assessment process for paint also considers other health issues such as the level of carcinogenic substances, as well as a range of environmental issues such as the heavy metal content, the presence of ozone-depleting substances and whether the packaging can be recycled. The GECA label is a good indication of a product whose manufacturer has voluntarily reduced its environmental and human health impact.

Painters are also aware of the issues. Established in 2007, GreenPainters Ltd is a network that provides training and support.

For painters wanting to reduce the impact of what they do. The program encourages painters to use low-VOC paint, eliminate pollution to ground and stormwater, and use heat reflective coatings to reduce energy use in buildings.

Options for healthier paint
VOC emissions aren't the only thing to consider when looking for a low-impact paint. What the paint is made out of, how the paint is manufactured, how much energy is used during the manufacturing process and whether there are toxic emissions from the manufacturing process are also important considerations.

There are numerous water-based synthetic paints that are very low in VOC emissions. There is also a good range of "natural" paint products that are made from natural, often renewable, plant- and mineral-based materials such as clay, linseed oil, eucalyptus oil or citrus. Natural paints are often less energy intensive than synthetic paints as the synthetic paints are based on petrochemicals and required a high level of processing. Natural paints are free of the heavy metals used in synthetic paints; however, the advantages of synthetic water-based paints are that they can be more durable and are generally cheaper.

There is a range of low-VOC paints on the market that are a low-VOC version of a mainstream product. While this is an indication that major paint manufacturers are addressing the issue of human health and paint, there is an argument that all paint should be at the healthier low-VOC standard. With the community still requiring some education on the benefits of healthy paint, and what the available options are, there is a role for government to legislate for healthier and more environmentally friendly paint products.

There are also low-VOC timber oil and stain products available. The low-VOC stains and oils tend to have higher VOC levels than low -VOC paints, so when looking for an interior floor finish or timber stain, ask the supplier to provide the data sheet - this should list the VOC content. By way of example some of the timber finishes listed below have a VOC content of around 80 - 85 g/L.

Internal air quality
It is important to remember that paint isn't the only product that emits VOCs: the timber used in the structure of cupboards and benches; furniture; floor coverings; floor coatings and glues; all of these contribute to the cocktail of chemicals found in the air inside our buildings. As our buildings become more energy efficient, they also become more airtight, meaning there are fewer gaps for fresh air to come into a building. This is good from an energy point of view but means that the quality of the air becomes very important. Reducing internal air-borne toxins requires a range of strategies from thoughtful internal material and paint selection to the design of good controllable ventilation, and even removing shoes before coming inside so containments are left outside. It all makes a difference. Walk into a building where these things have been addressed and the air really does feel fresh and clean.

The above information was extracted from 'Green magazine, Issue 11'