Paint can be the finishing touch on your building or renovation project, the feature that puts a personal stamp on your home, the difference between a room that looks elegant and a room that looks fondly back to the 1970s.

Aesthetically, a can of paint goes a long way. A can of paint also goes a long way in terms of its impact on your health and the health of the environment. Fortunately, this is one area where your household choices can make a big difference.

The manufacture of mainstream paints comes with environmental consequences in terms of the nature and amount of resources it utilizes, the waste products it generates and the water consumption it requires.

greenspec, among other groups, reports that the manufacture of titanium dioxide (the paint whitener that most commonly replaced lead after we learned how toxic lead was) is especially worrisome from an environmental standpoint—not just because it’s a mined limited resource, but because its processing releases numerous hazardous chemicals into the air and water.

Decades of research have shown us that we also have a right to be concerned about the impacts of paint usage on the environment and on human health. Petrochemicals, biocides (fungicides, for example) and Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) like formaldehyde and benzene are still common to many paints, despite growing awareness of the hazards of these substances.

The Adverse Effects of VOCs

VOCs, in particular, have come under fire in recent years for their adverse effects on human and environmental health. VOCs easily evaporate and react with nitrogen oxides in the air when exposed to sunlight, off-gassing ozone and photochemicals into the air for years after the paint dries.

This has effects on localized air pollution levels and contributes to greenhouse gas emissions. It also seems to have a negative effect on the long-term health of the humans who regularly use paint.

A 2010 analysis in the journal Occupational and Environmental Medicine found that professional painters are 30 percent more likely to develop bladder cancer. A second 2010 study in Environmental Health Perspectives found painters to be at a significantly increased risk of lung cancer.

Many regulatory agencies and governments (the EPA, Environment and Climate Change Canada and the EU, for example) have mandated limits on VOC levels in products. Limits, of course, do not mean these chemicals have gone away.

We don’t really even need research to tell us that paint isn’t great for us, though. Not opening sufficient windows when we paint tells us that paint can lead to dizziness; eye, nose and skin irritation; headaches and nausea, all of which are signs of exposure to toxins. These signs tend to worsen if the person painting suffers from asthma or other lung-related illnesses, or if children are exposed.

That sobering account, however, does not update your kitchen and unless you want to start a trend in tapestries, you need some sustainable paint choices.

Finding Eco-Friendly Paint

Unloading paint at hazardous waste disposal

One option is to investigate your local household recycling centers, paint reuse programs or secondhand building supply stores for leftover or recycled paint.

Reuse helps stem the improper disposal of this household hazardous waste and reduces the vast amount of wastage painting projects typically create. The UK’s Community RePaint estimates that “50 million litres of 320 million litres of paint sold in the UK each year go to waste.” Reusing paint is a sound option for reducing this paint waste, especially if you have a small project.

You could also, in theory, make your own paint but it is not likely to hold up well if you use it architecturally. If you have a larger project, specific colors or specific paint needs in mind, or if you don’t live in an area that practices a lot of paint recycling, natural or eco paints might be the most efficient option.

As with most things with the word “eco” in the label, you should read up on the product to learn what you’re actually getting. “Eco” can mean a range of things. It can mean the product is still made with petrochemicals but contains lower amounts of VOCs; it can mean the product contains natural, rather than synthetic, solvents (ethanol, for instance, which still contains VOCs) or it can mean the product is plant, chalk or clay-based, contains no harmful chemicals and can even be composted.

It’s always helpful to remember that “natural” does not mean the same thing as “non-toxic” and that many substances are both natural and completely toxic. For further research, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has a helpful guide to identifying more environmentally friendly paints and painting options.

Aside from the benefits of feeling like you’ve made a solid ethical choice, the plus side of these paints is that they do generally seem to compare to non-eco paints in terms of durability and longevity. In 2008, Rich Binsacca at Architect Magazine reported varying results, but called the emerging natural paint industry “promising” and constantly improving.

Eco paints come in a wide range of finishes for a range of surfaces, from kitchens and baths to trim to cupboards. Like other paints, you can use them with a roller and brush or with a paint sprayer.

Potential Problems Are Few

The downsides of eco paints are few, and the biggest is probably the price point. Unsurprisingly, you can expect to pay more for a natural paint. Note, too, that the plant-based oils in natural paint tend to take longer to dry than their synthetic chemical counterparts.

Clay paints may dry a shade lighter than expected, so be sure to see a dried sample of the paint before you decide on a color. Some eco paints will come in powder form and require mixing, so depending on the brand, you might have some additional labor to do.

A Straightforward Way to Be Sustainable

You’re already considering a lot of factors when giving your house a facelift: sticking to a budget, choosing the perfect shade of paint for the lighting in each room, finding the right tool for painting cabinets, matching your flooring. Choosing a paint with a lower environmental impact for your remodeling projects can be one straightforward way to embrace sustainable renovations.

image 2: U.S. Army Environmental Command