Part Three: The Problem With Paint

January 19th, 2011

Low-VOC, zero-VOC and “non-toxic” don’t mean “safe”

Looking for a “non-toxic” paint?  There’s a reason for putting the word in quotes. You will have some work to do before you pick up a brush or roller.

Paint manufacturers don’t have to list the ingredients they use on the can. Some chemicals in paint are difficult to eliminate because they are present in earth materials used to make paint. Unless you’re experienced in chemistry, you might not know what to look for on the Manufacturer’s Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS). And, many toxic irritants don’t have to be listed there anyway.

There are multiple standards and differing certifications for what makes paint “safe.” And knowing which chemical to avoid is a task all its own.

“For those of us who place indoor-air quality on our list of building objectives, responsibility must begin and end with ourselves,” says Jay Watts, marketing director for AFM Safecoat.

“An educated ‘green’ consumer is our best customer,” says Eileen McComb, communications director for Benjamin Moore Paint.

The questions

With a survey of five paint companies, this blog is designed to get you started. For your research convenience, links to our chemical and certification glossary appear throughout. We’ve included the large and small, the “green”-specialty and mainstream pioneers, and the chemically sensitive. We asked respondents – AFM Safecoat, Benjamin Moore, Earth Paint, Mythic Paint and Sherwin-Williams — about three things:

Why their company developed its low- and/or zero-VOC (Volatile Organic Compound) lines?

What toxins they sought to reduce or eliminate, and what they’ve done to reduce or eliminate several known toxins and irritants: ammonia, ethanol, acetone, butyl acetate, fungicides, biocides, acetaldehyde benzaldehyde, propanol, chemical masking agents, crystalline silica, formaldehyde and formaldehyde precursors?

And what certification do they have to show their products are safe?

The answers

AFM Safecoat:

AFM began working with physicians, allergists and others in the 1970s in an effort to reduce toxic effects paint products were having on professional painters, construction workers and others with chemical sensitivities.

“Our advantage in the marketplace? Thirty years making and testing products on those suffering from MCS – Multiple Chemical Sensitivities,” AFM’s Watts says. “Better for these folks makes it better for everyone. This is our unmatched competitive edge.”

AFM Safecoat does not add any of the ingredients called out in our questions, Watts says, and the products’ emissions have been independently tested and certified to meet limits set by Scientific Certification Systems (SCS) Indoor Air Advantage Gold certification. But, Watts adds, there are further considerations his company has addressed, that many consumers are unaware of. (Image courtesy of AFM Safecoat.)

“We are frequently told by individuals that the so-called zero-VOC paint they used is making them sick, so we make sure to eliminate to the greatest extent possible things like unreacted monomers and HAPS (Hazardous Air Pollutants) that might not technically be VOC’s, but can still be toxic and problematic,” Watts says.

This, he says, eliminates a problem typical with latex paint products, which can continue to emit chemicals after they are dry. It can take up to 3.5 years for some VOCs to be released from painted gypsum board. So, even your “low-VOC” paint can pollute your indoor air, and opening the windows or leaving the house until the paint is dry isn’t going to keep you from being exposed.

Benjamin Moore

Benjamin Moore does not add any of the chemicals listed by Natural Interiors and “We have gone to extraordinary lengths to ensure all our Green Promise products have the lowest levels possible for all of these chemicals,” Benjamin Moore’s McComb says. “More importantly, unlike many other manufacturers, tinting our Green Promise products does not introduce added VOCS and emissions in any color.”

Tinting paint in deeper colors is a challenge because it reduces paint performance and introduces crystalline silica, or quartz, which produces a carcinogenic dust.  Through the use of more expensive extender pigments, the company has developed paint that is virtually free of crystalline silica, McComb says. (Image courtesy of Benjamin Moore.)

Green Promise – Benjamin Moore’s own certification – exceeds chemical emission limits set by an array of other independent certifications, including GREENGUARD and Green Seal, McComb says. While you can see our glossary and link to these organizations to find chemicals their certifications test for, manufacturers are not required to list ingredients on the paint can.  In addition, a product’s MSDS only has to list chemicals that constitute more than 1 percent of the total volume and are not viewed by the company as part of a “proprietary blend.”

One of the best indicators of a company is what the company lists, McComb says. Take, for example, titanium dioxide – an exceptionally white pigment, used in everything from food coloring to make-up, and accounting for 70 percent of pigment production worldwide. Inhaling titanium dioxide powder has been shown to cause cancer in animal studies.

“Any legitimate company will always list it since the IARC (International Agency for Research on Cancer) has classified it as a … carcinogen, along with this explanation: ‘No significant exposure to titanium dioxide is thought to occur during the use of products in which titanium dioxide is bound to other materials, such as paint,’ ” McComb says. If this is missing, then your best bet is to take everything else they are saying with a grain of salt.”

Earth Paint

Full disclosure of ingredients should be the standard, but a single manufacturer would be at a competitive disadvantage if it revealed its ingredients and the others did not, says Tom Rioux, president of Earth Paint Inc. This brand was borne out of Rioux’s professional painting career, during which he suffered severe health reactions to chemicals.

“If companies are clear about their refusal to poison the earth for profit, it creates a fundamental shift in acceptable business practices …,” Rioux says. “Let’s cut through the marketing niceties and get to the nitty-gritty. What exactly is in the can? That’s the only way the public can make an educated decision.”

Rioux says his company avoids all trends, such as putting vinyl in paint, that are potentially dangerous. Vinyl acetate is often polymerized with butyl acrylate to make vinyl acrylic latex, and Rioux says it’s questionable whether all the ingredients react in this process or leave ingredients to react and pollute indoor air.

Rioux also notes that pigments used to color paint should be chosen carefully as the dust from raw earth pigments is often more toxic than synthetic pigments. With this exception, Earth Paint does not add the chemicals named in the survey, he says, and the company lists ingredients to avoid on its website. Earth Paint also works with Nauhaus Institute and makes wood stains and finishes that have been used in green homes, including the Nauhaus Prototype. (Image courtesy of Earth Paint.)

Mythic Paint

Mythic Paint, manufactured by Southern Diversified Products, was created by polymer scientists at the University of Southern Mississippi in response to a request from the Pentagon. Officials there wanted to repair damage in the aftermath of 9/11 without adversely affecting anyone working in the occupied offices.

Though Mythic does not disclose its ingredients or comment specifically on our list of toxins, they say their scientists created a zero-VOC, zero-toxin, high-performance paint that comes in any color.

“Our products do not contain any of the toxins found on Prop 65 or other green lists like Green Seal or Green Wise,” says Samantha Lueder, public information officer for Mythic.

Mythic Paint has Green Wise certification, and Lueder points out, is also used by David Gottfried, founder of the US Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system, in his own home. (Image courtesy of Mythic.)


“Sherwin-Williams has always been a good steward of the environment,” says Steve Revnew, vice president of product development. “It started years ago when we invented the first latex paint. This significantly changed the market for oil-based technology to water-based paints.”

While the company does not disclose ingredients or comment specifically on our chemical list, Revnew says Sherwin-Williams has actively worked to reduce all chemicals listed under its GreenSure designation.

In addition, the company’s low- and zero-VOC products have achieved GREENGUARD Children & Schools certification, which arguably sets the most stringent emission limits of any independent certification in our glossary. (Image courtesy of Sherwin-Williams.)

Nancy Kibbee is Editor at

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