Paint: how to save your lungs, money and the planet

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The paint in your house is a lot more dangerous than you think it is; and most ‘environmentally friendly’ paints are a dreadful ripoff, consisting as they do of a few very basic and cheap ingredients that you can get hold of in large quantities for next to nothing.

My house badly needed decorating recently, so I decided to look into the world of paint. What I found was pretty disturbing stuff, so I thought I’d share it here.

Toxic fumes

Most commercial paints give off toxic fumes and will have a hazard warning on the tin. It doesn’t stop when the paint dries though – although the initial toxic load is very high and reduces when the pain dries, it continues to release potentially dangerous chemicals into your home for months or even years afterwards. The thing to look out for on commercial paints is the VOC (volatile organic chemical) content – these are substances that are released as breathable gases from the paint at room temperature and include benzene, formaldehyde and other highly toxic carcinogens. Many paints also contain mercury, lead and a cocktail of petrochemicals. These substances are recognised as being extremely dangerous by our Government and the paint manufacturers, but they are still permitted in large quantities as long as the VOC level is stated on the tin and the hazard warning included. According to the EPA (the US Environmental Protection Agency), VOCs in paints can cause eye irritation (particularly in contact lens wearers - the lenses trap the chemicals and keep them in contact with the eye even after the wearer has left the building); respiratory problems; liver and kidney damage; headaches and nausea; and cancer. This is not scaremongering - paints releases more VOCs into the environment than petrol stations and power stations combined; and the World Health Organisation lists painting as a 'carcinogenic' occupation. This is nasty stuff.

The environmentally-friendly option

Some of the larger manufacturers have started to produce ‘low VOC’ paints which is a definite improvement, but the best options available are the VOC-free versions which some of the smaller environmentally-friendly producers are marketing. Unfortunately, many of them are taking advantage of their unique selling point and charging obscene prices for products which are often no more than naturally-pigmented whitewash.

If you want a job doing properly, do it yourself!

The best way to ensure that you are using the most environmentally-friendly option for the best price is to buy the raw ingredients and make the paint yourself. This is not as daunting as it sounds – on the contrary. Whitewash is a very simple and ancient form of paint and it has stood the test of time for a reason. It can be coloured, gives great coverage, is completely non-toxic, and resists damp very well. It also looks great.

There are many producers of lime in the UK – a quick Google for ‘lime putty’ will turn up a few of them. While you will probably pay £7 + per litre for the commercial environmentally-friendly paints, a huge 20 kilo vat of lime putty will set you back well under a tenner. Then all you need is water and a pigment, which you can either find on the lime producers’ sites, or source elsewhere from art stores or even herbalists. Iron oxides work very well, as do many other natural pigments. My house is currently a beautiful, natural earthy yellow courtesy of a bag of ‘yellow ochre’.  You will have to experiment to get the shade right, but it’s a lot more fun than just opening a tin and suffering the usual chemical headache.

There are many recipes for paint online (Google!) – the addition of borax adds anti-mould and anti-bacterial properties without affecting toxicity, and casein can improve the texture. The simplest version is just a kilo of lime putty to 2 kilos of water which gives a brilliant white matt finish.

If you really don’t want to mix your own, lime-based paints are available at very reasonable prices, pre-mixed with the pigments, from the same people who manufacture and sell the lime. Buying from source makes a lot more sense – look for companies like Mike Wye, Cornish Lime and J J Sharpe (the company who produced the lime plaster for the new Globe theatre in London). You may even find suppliers of pigments on eBay.

You only paint your house once in a blue moon, and a little extra effort in sourcing/making your paints can make a lot of difference to your health, particularly if you suffer from allergies or asthma. It’s been a real voyage of discovery and I’m very proud of my walls!
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