A brush with bad health

Paints expose us to a range of chemicals. Lisa Sykes looks at the industry's efforts to clean up its act
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MOST expectant parents want to decorate the nursery just before the baby is born. But they may not realise that a newly painted room will subject their baby to a host of chemicals.

Paint, varnish and wood-care products contain solvents and other chemicals known as volatile organic compounds (VOCs) which evaporate during use. During summer the effects are worse because in the presence of sunlight, VOCs react with nitrogen oxides to cause air pollution such as ground- level ozone and smog.

Although most VOC emissions come from car exhausts - just 2 per cent come from paints - concentrations of VOCs indoors are likely to be up to 10 times higher than outside, according to the Building Research Establishment. They can cause eye irritation and headaches.

Several studies in Scandinavia have found that painters and decorators suffer long-term damage to their nervous systems because of VOCs. But the levels drop off rapidly in the weeks after the paint has been applied. Caroline Townley, a baby products consultant and mother of four, recommends decorating the nursery at least six weeks before the baby is born.

She says: "Organic and low-solvent paints are better in terms of VOC emissions but they still contain a cocktail of chemicals that are not good for new-born babies to be exposed to. And if you are decorating, there are other products that give off noxious substances, such as wallpaper paste, sealants and even carpets. The fibres that come off new carpets when they have just been laid can't be good for tiny lungs. There is little research on this because we don't like to use babies as guinea pigs, but we know from the effects on adults with respiratory problems what the outcome will be."

There are more than 250 VOCs, and Chris Tuckett, air pollution scientist at the Institute for Environment and Health, says we don't know much about them: "Because most of the emissions are at very low levels, it is hard to establish causal links. But what we can say is that gloss paint is the worst because it has the highest amount of VOCs, although water-based paints can still contain them and may give off emissions for longer as they take more time to dry."

Knowing which paint to choose is not easy. B&Q, which sells one out of every two cans of DIY paint in Britain, has come up with a new guide for paints that labels them according to their VOC content. Lorien Coutts, a spokeswoman, says: "We found 123 different descriptions of paint in one of our stores - everything from low odour to water-based. It is no wonder that customers were confused." The new labels state that VOCs contribute to atmospheric pollution and class paint from "minimal" through "low" to "very high" VOC content. B&Q is trying to reduce VOC content in its products to 30 per cent of 1996 levels by 1999.

The labels were introduced in January on B&Q's own-brand products but are now appearing on Dulux and other brand-name paints because the British Coatings Federation (BCF), which represents more than 90 per cent of paint, varnish and treatment manufacturers, is asking its members to introduce the labelling industry-wide by the end of the year. It has also produced a consumer guide, available in DIY stores, which advocates choosing water- based or low-solvent coatings.

Decorative coatings for walls and ceilings tend to be water-based anyway, with increasingly lower VOC levels. But conventional wood and metal coatings are generally solvent-based with higher VOC levels. An alternative might be a water-based acrylic gloss paint that will dry more quickly, emit less fumes and odour, and not yellow as much as a solvent-based gloss paint. However, the solvent-based product will be glossier and have higher resistance to wear and tear, so you won't need to paint so often.

Auro Organics takes a different approach to producing paints. The company was set up by a German chemist who wanted to reduce environmental impacts at all stages of production and use in his products. Alan Sim, technical adviser, says: "We are trying to reduce solvent levels in paint but our research and development is on a much smaller scale than, say, ICI's. While our paints still have relatively high levels of solvents, they are from renewable resources. Orange peel oil, a waste product from the juice industry, is used as a solvent in most products including standard white emulsion. This is much better than using white spirit or turpentine substitutes, which are carcinogenic. So we are not worried about falling behind in the low-solvent stakes, because you might get drunk if you breathe in our paints in a concentrated form, but you won't get cancer."

If choosing coloured paints, he recommends mineral-based colours rather than chemically created ones. These paints will be more expensive and not quick drying, but will they will be better for you. Moira McMillan, a BCF spokeswoman, says the aim is to reduce VOC content by specific targets in specific types of paint - white emulsion, the biggest seller, will drop to 30g per litre by the end of the year. We buy more than 300 million litres of decorative paint every year in the UK, and if the BCF's targets are met it would mean a 40 per cent reduction in VOC emissions.


Ecolabelling is an EU-wide scheme that independently assesses a product's environmental performance against specific criteria and judges it to be a product that is better for the environment, without compromising its performance.

Ecolabels were introduced on paints three years ago but so far just three paints and one varnish in the UK carry the label. But, says Jerry Rendell, chief executive of the UK Ecolabelling Board, this is because other brands have not applied. "A 30g per litre limit for VOCs in emulsion is not very demanding, as levels are coming down all the time. A lot of brand-name emulsions could meet that anyway, but they don't want an ecolabel because they prefer to put them on 'niche market' products aimed at a greener customer." The three paints - Dulux Ecolyd High Solids Gloss, Dulux Quick Drying Gloss and Do-it-All Long Life Gloss - only have to satisfy a 200g per litre limit for gloss paints, 250g for High Solids gloss, as they cover more surface area and last longer.