What's in the Paint?

In my last post, we talked about renovations that help increase the value of your home while providing the best return on investment. Coming in at #3 on that list was applying a fresh coat of paint, surely one of the best ways to improve the look and feel of your home for minimal dollars invested. I always toss this one out there to prospective sellers as a point of improvement because almost anyone can apply a coat of paint and absorb the associated costs. But have you ever taken a second to think about what’s in the paint itself? Surely everyone can imagine the distinct odor of freshly applied paint. What’s in that intoxicating medley of fumes?

The answer to that question is similar to many household items (and foods we consume, but that’s a different story): a whole bunch of compounds you probably can’t pronounce. The world just isn’t as transparent as it ought to be. Ever hear of something called a volatile organic compound, or VOC? Sounds inviting, doesn’t it? Basically, paints are composed of three primary components: pigments, binders and solvents. The solvent portion contain much of the paint’s VOCs, little chemicals that like to evaporate as a freshly applied coat of paint dries, leaving behind the pigment and binders that dry and form what stays behind on the wall. It’s worth noting that oil-based paints have a much higher VOC content than do water-based paints, like most latex paints and for these reason extra caution should be taken when working with these products.

At this point you’re probably wondering whether VOCs are harmful to us. The short and sweet answer is absolutely. Certain VOCs can mix with previously harmless air-borne chemicals to produce unwanted compounds that can cause health problems, such as headaches, respiratory issues and a loss of coordination (if you ever sniffed paint as a kid this explains why you had a hard time walking in a straight line afterwards). Many studies have linked variable amounts of VOC exposure to cancer in certain animal models. Others have speculated that the same might be occurring with respect to humans. How lovely! Of particular importance are the speculated health effects of VOCs on infants (the real and initial motivation for this post topic). It has been suggested that exposure to certain VOCs when you are pregnant can pose significant challenges to not only you but also your unborn baby. Clearly we need to take important precautions before we simply buy the cheapest paint on the shelf!

This brings us to our options. Are there alternatives available to us that are either low or non-VOC containing? The answer is yes. There has been a big push in recent years to bring safer options to the paint aisle. Low-VOC paints have become common and are readily available at most reputable paint dealers, as well as non-VOC paints. Natural paints, made from combinations of clay, lime and chalk, are also available. Some have even resorted to making their own paints, like Martha Stewart who uses milk, eggs and other ingredients (no joke).

VOCs are not the only culprit. Paints contain a huge combination of chemicals that are dangerous when we expose ourselves to them without the proper protection. But the point is we should be more conscious of what we are buying and think beyond how it looks. After all, which is more important? A slick-looking hallway wall or a clear breathing child? Easy answer in my books.

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