April 23, 2024
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When I think of the halachic issues of paint, my first thought is leaving one corner of a room unfinished. But given the imperative to avoid doing things that are unhealthy, can Jewish values inform what paint we buy? My father had a paint store, and strangely, I liked the smell of fresh paint. But that smell, like the benzene we would sometimes wash our paint-coated hands with, is unhealthy; we just didn’t know better at the time. Regulators took lead out of paint in the 1970s and few oil paints are sold today, so paint is less toxic than it once was, but most paints still contain hazardous chemicals. Responding to consumer concerns, major brands have added reformulated lines to reduce some of the most harmful chemicals while other brands have emerged that avoid toxins entirely.

What are VOCs and Why Should I Care?

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are found in paint solvents. As the paint dries, VOCs continue to evaporate for months, causing problems for people with respiratory issues, contribute to smog, and some may be carcinogens.

GreenSeal, the standard used for green buildings, sets a maximum of 50 grams per liter for untinted interior flat for low-VOC paint. Zero-VOC paint must have no VOCs detected up to the limits of testing, which is 5 g/L. Some zero-VOC paints may have trace VOCs, a few have none. Exterior, glossy, and some tinted paints can have more VOCs. For many brands, adding colorant, especially darker colors, could significantly raise VOC levels.

Low-VOC and zero-VOC paints are now available from all major paint brands. Some cost about the same as their conventional counterparts; others can cost about double. Sherwin-Williams offers both low-VOC and zero-VOC lines and its colorants do not add VOCs. Some of their paints absorb contaminants in the air, combine primer and paint, and have anti-microbial agents. Other major brands with eco-offerings include Benjamin Moore, Behr, Glidden, PPG, and Valspar. Low- and zero-VOC offerings are also available in less expensive commercial labels from the same companies.

Beyond VOCs—Natural Paints

While major brands have reformulated their paints to lower VOCs and sometimes other hazardous chemicals, most still use petroleum-based acrylic latex as a base. For those who want to eliminate all potentially toxic or petroleum-based chemicals, there are the so-called natural paints. The U.S. Green Building Council says these are healthier and more environmentally sound than even zero-VOC paints. These brands are not as well known, but many perform superbly.

Natural paints typically use plant oils and minerals as binders, thickeners, and pigments. Some, such as Real Milk Paint, even use milk-derived casein. These paints have almost no odor, and leftovers will not contaminate landfills or groundwater. Many are virtually identical to conventional paint, but a few are not well suited to wet areas, have a more rustic appearance, or require a sealer coat.

Mythic Paint was built from the ground up to be a zero-VOC paint line (including colorants) without any harmful toxins and a full range of colors, and has a range of certifications as to its performance and safety. Similarly, AFM Safecoat contains no toxins or VOCs. Other brands available locally or online include Anna Sova, BioShield, GreenPlanet, and Yolo. Jonathan Cascio of Mythic notes that prices for these types of products are coming down, so the premium paid for safer air in your home is not as significant as it was in the past.

How to Shop

The Master Painters Institute Extreme Green performance standard requires durability, low-VOCs, and reduced undesirable chemical components. While reducing initial VOCs is good, a paint that is washable, long-lasting, and hides old paint well will reduce the amount of paint used and the number of repainting required, and thus reduces VOCs and other toxins.

When shopping for paint, look for third-party certifications that the paint meets the GreenSeal, Asthma & Allergy Friendly, or Greenguard standards, or industry-supported seals, like Green Wise and MPI X-Green. Some companies have created their own eco-logos, like Sherwin-Williams’ GreenSure and Benjamin Moore’s Green Promise, though one should generally look for additional verification of claims. For a guide to eco paint brands, see my web site.

Buy only what you need (10% of all paint purchased is left over), and recycle leftovers on Bergen County special recycling days, or donate them to Habitat for Humanity. Never pour paint or brush clean-up water into the drain. Dispose of them with paint recycling or evaporate in the can before recycling.

Michael Rogovin is Chair of the Teaneck Environmental Commission and is accredited as a LEED® Green Associate. He consults to homeowners and businesses seeking to make their buildings, operations and lifestyle more sustainable. He can be reached at rogovingreenconsulting.wordpress.com.

By Michael Rogovin

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