The enemy within: How to identify harmful paints

A few months ago, while attending a painters’ workshop in Kasarani, Nairobi, I couldn’t help but notice a gentleman who kept peeping into the hall while we were in session. As the meeting progressed, the man strategically positioned himself and followed our discussion from outside.

“I have a problem with breathing which aggravates when I get to my house,” the man said when he strode towards me during break. “I have respiratory problems and normally ensure my enclosures are well ventilated and free from contaminants,” he said. “My breathing problem gets worse when I get home. Could it be something to do with the paint used on my walls?” The answer to his question is yes, it could be the paint.

Household paints contain up to 10,000 chemicals of which 300 are known toxins and 150 have since been linked to cancer. Some of the most harmful chemicals found in paints are volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

VOCs readily vaporise into the air and due to their instability, react with other elements to produce ozone, which causes air pollution and a host of health issues, including breathing problems, headaches, watery eyes and nausea. In addition, if you consider that people spend about 90 per cent of their time indoors, and around 65 per cent inside their homes in particular, you can see why indoor air pollution is an important issue. Moreover, some of the side effects caused by indoor air pollution are little worse than those of their counterparts.

Basic paint contains pigments responsible for the paint’s colour and binders which act as the medium to enable paint stick to the surfaces. Paints also consist of solvents which act as carriers to keep the paint in liquid form, making it easier to apply.

In all these components, the solvents contribute the most to the paint’s level of VOCs. This is because the solvent (liquid) is designed to evaporate quickly, leaving the pigments and the binders (solids) on your walls.

Solvents tend to be either oil-based and with a high VOC content or water-based with a relatively lower VOC content. From this, we can gather that water-based paints are a safer bet when moving towards eco-friendly coatings.

As paint dries, these harmful chemicals are released into the air at high levels. Indoor VOC levels are usually 10 times higher than outdoor levels and up to 1,000 times higher immediately after painting.

What might escape us is that paints continue seeping out VOCs for several years after painting and only 50 per cent of these harmful chemicals are released in the first year. Painters regularly exposed to paint vapours have an increased incidence of several types of cancers, impaired brain function, reading dysfunction and other health problems.

Lately, consumers have begun to demand safer and efficient alternatives. This option can only be found in low VOC paint and the recently introduced zero VOC paint. These categories are now widely available and sold by major paint manufacturers. Such paints are forbidden from using a range of toxic chemicals, including carcinogens, reproductive toxins, hazardous air pollutants, heavy metals and formaldehyde.

Apart from being safe and eco-friendly, these coatings are also subjected to certain performance requirements such as abrasion resistance, hiding power and washability.

Perhaps the greatest responsibility lies in the hands of the consumers who have to enlighten themselves on available safer alternatives. Today, consumers can demand a technical data sheet which summarises the performance and characteristics of a product.

Zero VOC paints come with a green seal, which is a guarantee that they meet precise environmental standards. Paints that are not in the zero VOC category can also be identified by their unmistakable pungent smell.

With this, the consumer is able to make an informed decision. The government also has to play its role by putting in place legislation which ensures that only safe and efficient coatings make it to the manufacturers’ portfolio.

— The writer is the technical executive at Crown Paints (K) Ltd.