Part Three: The Problem With Paint

Part Three: The Problem With Paint

IMPORTANT NOTE: This article was accurate as of the date it was published, and was signed off on by all of the manufacturer sources quoted. That said, manufacturers frequently change their formulations and ingredients, so this article, given its age, becomes background. DO NOT rely on this article for purchasing these manufacturers’ current products. The questions are relatively simple, but if you would like help in getting guaranteed answers about certifications on a current product, sign up at:

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.)

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  • Shelley Davis
    Posted at 13:58h, 09 August Reply

    I am one of those people whose lives have been poisoned by Benjamin Moore. They are refusing to install an air ventillation system so I can use my home properly. They wouldn’t even consider it they said. They don’t care. So folks who have been poisoned and whose homes are a nightmare because of them, join the class action law suit and/or let your voices be heard. Like all inconsiderate corporations, hurting them in their pockets is the only way to get things rectified. Please everyone – speak up, cross post etc.Complain to your BBB and to the Attorney General’s office in your state and in their state.

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    […] been tested and contains less than two percent crystalline silica – a natural colorant present in paint that can pose a hazard to human health if inhaled in dust form. There is no titanium dioxide, which […]

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  • JR
    Posted at 23:14h, 25 March Reply

    Maybe the guys living under a bridge (homeless) got one up on us! Oh wait pigon poop can kill you to. Youd think life is fatal or something.

    • Dremora
      Posted at 07:57h, 26 April Reply

      sadly, profits over people has indeed made “life fatal” or something. Toxins to make everything “better” is in our homes, paints, furniture, foods, streets, grass, earth, concrete, wood, liquids, energy, clothing…etc. etc…it’s no wonder we our molecular systems are evolving and there’s an increase in diseases and anti biotic resistant diseases.

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  • Sydelle
    Posted at 12:00h, 21 July Reply

    Mythic Paint is a GREAT option, it’s zero VOC, completely non toxic and is a wonderful choice for chemically sensitive people. I have terrible asthma and Mythic is the only paint that doesn’t aggravate my symptoms. If you’re in the NJ/NY area I suggest using Non Toxic Paint Supply as a dealer since they offer next day, free delivery.

  • mary gonne
    Posted at 00:03h, 17 December Reply

    please let us know the type of lab in our area that will test our zero voc paint with a sour odor, although now slight, in the room after two months with the windows open…we would like a complete chemical profile…our can of paint also has an unpleasant sour odor compared to a new open can of the same paint we used for comparison at the store…the mfg. claims their lab report showed it is just normal paint and denied there was an odor on the lab report even tho in the store it had a marked smell and two employees confirmed that..the mfg refuses to take any responsibility and told us to just wait til the smell goes away but we are unsure of what we are smelling which has a slight chemical sour smell consistently…it is now December 2015 and we would appreciate hearing from you asap…thank you for your wonderful website and what you do…it is much appreciated.

    • Nancy Kibbee
      Posted at 08:45h, 17 December Reply

      I am not sure what area you are in, but I would contact a certified industrial hygienist in your area and ask for the name of a respected lab, which can conduct a test in accordance with established rules for testing paint.

  • Linda Salzman
    Posted at 20:42h, 19 September Reply

    I have chemical sensitivities and chose Benjamin Moore aura paint for my home. It is now over four months since painting was completed. I cannot go into my house without having breathing problems and coughing. We had odorox machines and scrubbing machines in the house for a week. Nothing has helped. Do you have any suggestions for me? At this point I even fear buying a new house as I may be chemically bothered. I would appreciate your help.

    • Nancy Kibbee
      Posted at 08:55h, 20 September Reply

      Zero- and low-VOC products are not always the solution for someone with chemical sensitivities who might have a reaction to something else in the product. The two paint companies I have seen point this out loudly are AFM Safecoat and Earthpaint. I also recommend that anyone who is prone to react, work with a small amount of a product and test it before making a product decision.

    • Nancy Kibbee
      Posted at 18:50h, 22 September Reply

      Linda, also, as just discussed on the phone, any articles on this site were from 2012 and there is an editor’s note at the top that states: IMPORTANT NOTE: This article was accurate as of the date it was published, and was signed off on by all of the manufacturer sources quoted. That said, manufacturers frequently change their formulations and ingredients, so this article, given its age, becomes background. DO NOT rely on this article for purchasing these manufacturers’ current products. The questions are relatively simple, but if you would like help in getting guaranteed answers about certifications on a current product, sign up at:

  • Polonia
    Posted at 23:39h, 29 January Reply

    Looking for reviews and recommndations for Earthpaint products.

  • Bonnie S.
    Posted at 17:57h, 30 January Reply

    Dear all,

    I have found that Israel’s way is the best way to go. No paint period. Here is why. Certain nefarious companies have developed chemical toxins that if just a small amount is placed in a room, or a can of paint ( a few drops – and this can be done by a dishonest company/contractor, or someone paid to do it- it will bond with latex and polyurethane and create a synergetic effect that is utterly deadly. It has been done purposely to target certain individuals, causing their new paint or flooring job to be a death sentence. The chemical is a refrigerant called r-410a which is mandated to be in every home by 2020 even though it is banned starting in 2024. It only takes a small speck of this, especially near a heat source, to bond with latex and polyurethane and create a deadly mix which causes kidney failure, cancer, pneumonia and faiirly quickly. So, if you start to feel like you’re breathing gravel after you put your new carpet or paint on, it may not be the carpet or paint but this chemical that was secretly dabbed in some inconspicuous place (which is bright pink), which doesn’t come out, and which only takes a few drops to destroy an entire house.

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