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Silent Dangers: Traditional paints, solvents emit harmful toxic chemicals

Silent Dangers: Traditional paints, solvents emit harmful toxic chemicals

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By the time you’ve tucked your children into bed at night, you’ve likely run through a routine of safety checks to determine that smoke and carbon-monoxide alarms are working, doors and windows are locked and the temperature is just right.

But what if there is danger being emitted from the walls and baseboards of your home?

With painting the interior of your home or removing older paints, occupants can risk the silent dangers that come with the emission of toxic chemicals from some paints as well as paint strippers, solvents or the dust that is raised by sanding painted surfaces.

Traditional paints and many related products, such as paint thinner or stripper, give off volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Emitted as gases from certain solids or liquids, VOCs include a variety of chemicals that may include toluene, xylene, ethyl acetate, formaldehyde, methylene chloride and glycol. These chemicals can lead to indoor air quality problems and pose serious health risks. VOCs are released when using paint products that contain them and, to some extent, when these products are stored.

Many experts agree that emissions occur during drying in the first few days after painting. But Lullaby Paints says that harmful paint fumes continue to off-gas in your home for years after painting.

Plus, they have an additional concern: “Babies have a higher resting metabolic rate — meaning their rate of oxygen consumption is greater than adults. As a result, they are much more susceptible to harm from breathing in pollutants,” said Julian Crawford, founder and CEO of Lullaby Paints. “We’re talking about a risk of respiratory, cognitive and developmental health problems that will last their lifetime.”

The EPA’s office of research and development’s “Total Exposure Assessment Methodology Study” found that levels of organic pollutants average 2 to 5 times higher indoors than outdoors. During and for several hours immediately after certain activities, such as paint stripping, levels may be 1,000 times background outdoor levels.

Some organic chemicals are known to cause cancer in animals and some are suspected or known to cause cancer in humans. Among the immediate symptoms that are sometimes experienced with exposure are eye irritation, nose and throat irritation, allergic skin reaction, nausea, headaches, dizziness, visual disorders, fatigue and memory impairment.

In individuals who are exposed to high levels of VOCs for long periods of time, such as professional painters, there have been reports of damage to the liver, kidneys and nervous system. People with breathing problems and young children should be protected from paint fumes.

Currently, there are no regulations for the homeowners or occupants regarding the toxins in paint and related supplies. But there are regulations by the Department of Labor and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration limiting exposure for professional painters doing residential painting, according to Neal O’Briant, spokesperson for the NC Department of Labor. These regulations acknowledge the dangers of these toxins.

Fortunately, there are paint manufacturers that have developed paint solutions that have low or zero VOCs. Lullaby Paints, Benjamin Moore and Sherwin Williams are among them.

“With no toxic chemicals, no VOCs, no solvents and no odor, Lullaby Paints offers moms and dads a safe way to paint their baby’s nursery. For 25 years we have been making paints for the chemically sensitive — people who have a hard time coping with everyday chemicals or those who suffer from common medical conditions like asthma and allergies. Today, we are bringing our technology to an equally deserving group — everybody else. There is no good reason why paint needs to contain harmful chemicals,” Crawford said.

Lullaby Paints can be ordered online at .

“We carry both low and zero VOC paints in our store,” said Ricky Lovelace, store manager at Bennett Paints, 4710 Benton Road, a Benjamin Moore retailer, . “With these paints, a painter can come into a home in the morning, move occupants out of a bedroom and then move them back in to sleep there that night without a problem.”

Also, most of today’s paints are colored with water-based colorants. Old paints were colored with oil-based colorants. The oil contained more toxins, according to Lovelace.

“I will ask customers if they have children or anyone in the home with breathing problems, allergies or asthma. It’s important to know where they are using the product and who is exposed to it.”

Another local source for low and zero VOC paints is the Sherwin-Williams Paint Store, 3655 Reynolda Road. Visit for product information.

“Customers are generally more aware than they were just a few years ago,” said Wes Walden, customer service associate with Lowe’s. Lowe’s offers low and zero VOC paints. “The newer products with lower toxins carry composition information on their labels. The marketing of the products has served to raise awareness.”

Paint retailers should be able to offer Material Safety Data Sheets on each product. If you are hiring a painter, make sure to find out what materials they are using. And if you are an apartment dweller, beware. Many landlords and housing-rental companies use the cheapest paint available.

“There is a misperception that newer, less toxic paints don’t look as good but that’s not true,” Lovelace said. “Low and zero VOC paints are durable and come in vibrant colors.”

It is illegal to have lead in paint. While this is generally well-known today, lead continues to be a problem for many people. Homes that were built prior to 1978 are likely to have lead-based paint on the walls, quite possibly painted over. Low levels of lead poisoning can cause learning disabilities, brain, kidney and nervous-system damage, poor muscle coordination, slow growth and speech, language and behavior problems. High levels of exposure can cause seizures, unconsciousness or death. Symptoms can include nausea, fatigue, irritability, headache and stomach ache. But children may not always show symptoms.

Winston Salem’s LEAD SAFE program, a collaboration between the City of Winston Salem, the Forsyth County Health Department and other community organizations, has just completed work through a three-year, $2 million grant from the U.S. Office of Healthy Homes and Lead Hazard Control. This program was able to test 183 homes and remove lead from 105 homes. The group has applied for re-funding. Funding decisions will be made in the spring.

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