Volatile Organic Compounds (How safe is your paint?)

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What are VOC's?

VOC's are harmful to everyone, not just children - and they can be extremely damaging to the environment. So, what are these VOC's? Volatile Organic Compounds are generated from cleaning fluids, paints, building materials, furnishings, carpets and tobacco smoke. It may be hard to believe, but there are up to 300 VOC's just within our indoor atmosphere. In actual fact, the air we breathe is riddled with airbourne contaminants. Most of us spend a large percentage of time indoors, and any doctor will tell you that good air quality is vital for our health.

VOC's And Paint

Paint, unfortunately, is one of the top contributors of this kind of indoor air pollution, and it's prudent to note that some paints can actually give off fumes for up to five years after their application!

In a study in the USA, the EPA found concentrations of VOC's in indoor air to be 2-5 times greater than in outdoor air. Incredibly, during certain activities, indoor levels of VOC's may reach 1,000 times that of outdoor air! The EPA also identified VOC's as carcinogenic, and highlighted the associated health risks which include lung diseases such as asthma, bronchitis and emphysema. Similarly, an Australian study into the effects on asthmatics of exposure to a conventional water-based paint and a VOC free paint, concluded that Zero VOC paint appeared to be less likely to cause a worsening of respiratory symptoms than conventional acrylic paint, and that some asthmatics would derive a useful symtomatic benefit from using Zero VOC paint. Higher exposure to VOC's from paint (for example, among artists and professional painters) has been known to lead to permanent respiratory, nervous system, liver or kidney damage.

Of real concern are the short-lived bursts of very high exposure, such as those experienced while painting or using solvents.

Ingredients and Additives in Paint

Many paint companies now designate certain paints as being "low VOC" or "low odour" (which should NOT be confused with non-toxicity!). Although low VOC paints are certainly a lot safer than conventional paints, they still contain harmful chemicals that can irritate the eyes, nose, throat, skin and lungs. And it's important to note thar "Low Odour" is not the same as "Low VOC" because fumes from VOC can be masked by other chemicals! Even ZERO VOC might not necessarily be non-toxic due to other toxic ingredients being present such as Ammonia, Phthalates, Heavy Metals, Toluene and Glcol Esters! Ammonia can cause respiratory problems and eye irritation. Toluene is a common solvent in paints and it can damage the heart, kidneys & nervous system when inhaled. It's also known as Methyl Benzene. Phthalates are toxic to the eyes and skin, heavy metals like Cobalt and Cadmium can damage the kidneys an liver, as can Glycol Esters.

When you consider that many paints contain binders, pigments, fillers, extenders, thickeners and additives, it becomes clear just how many potentially damaging elements can be in your paint.

Product Recall

There have been many recent product recalls as a result of high levels of lead and chemical compounds. A recent incidence of this being when the department store Harrods was forced to recall several hundred souvenir teddy bears after tests found potentially harmful levels of formaldehyde - another ingredient commonly found in acrylic paint. Formaldehyde can cause skin problems, headaches, a burning sensation in the throat and respiratory problems. Those with sensitive skin or asthma are particularly at risk.

VOC Labelling System

Although the impact of interior paints on atmospheric pollution is relatively small, most manufacturers are now of the mind that the amount of VOC's should be reduced and consumers given the choice of using lower VOC containing products. B&Q notably introduced a labelling system in 1996, which shows the VOC content of each paint product. Minimal -(Zero - 0.29%). Low (0.30 - 7.99%), Medium (8-24.99%), High (25-50%) and Very High (More than 50%). Between 1996 and 2005 the average VOC of paint sold in B&Q has reduced from 191g/l to 97g/l.

Zero VOC, Non-Toxic, Non-Solvent paints are often more expensive than conventional paint, but using products in your home that are safe for your children and kind to the environment is worth the additional cost.

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