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Eco-Friendly Finishes: What's on the Surface Counts

Posted by Green Builder Staff

Dec 10, 2014 3:42:00 PM

PAINTS AND ADHESIVES in the United States have come a long away. They no longer contain lead or other heavy metals. Most contain only a fraction of the volatile organic compounds (VOCs) they did ten years ago. Oil-based (alkyd) paints have largely been replaced by water-based latex products. But the conversion hasn’t always been smooth, and it’s far too early to declare “mission accomplished.”

Some of the first brands of ultra low-VOC products got a bad rap a few years ago. These new paints were not as stable, harder to apply and almost impossible to find. They set back the transition to “green” paint, especially among contractors.

Know the Lingo

Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs): Toxic ingredients common in paints, adhesives and many household items that are released into the air.

Hazardous Air Pollutants (HAPs): These substances were listed in the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments. Here’s the EPA list: http://www.epa.gov/ttnatw01/187polls.html

Alkyd: Commonly referred to as “oil based,” this type of coating is typically higher in VOCs than waterborne paint, containing a petroleum-based solvent and a binder of synthetic resin.

Acrylic Latex: This widely used finish uses water as a solvent, and tends to be lower in VOC content than alkyd products, although it may offgas more slowly.

Breathe: How well a paint allows water vapor to pass through it without blistering or failing.

Back Priming: Coating the back or hidden face of siding or trim prior to installation as an added measure of protection from moisture.

But those quality problems have been solved. Most of the latest generation of low-impact paints and adhesives perform almost as well as their solvent counterparts. But beware of exaggerated green claims. Some companies like to hint that their paint brands are eco-friendly finishes, when they’re really just doing the bare minimum—meeting regulatory standards. The same consumer caution should apply to adhesives. Remind yourself that the color of a product’s container or labeling may have nothing to do with what’s inside.

As you consider low-VOC, no-VOC and other emissions claims, here are some points to consider.

Just because a paint is low in volatile organic compounds doesn’t mean it’s safe to apply it in your home without wearing property safety gear—or that it won’t release other dangerous pollutants. VOCs are just one category of paint ingredient. Even if a paint contains no VOCs at all, it may contain hazardous airborne pollutants (HAPs). These take the form of both gases and tiny particles that have been shown to cause respiratory trouble, especially for people with asthma. Household cleaners and bath products often contain both VOCs and HAPs as well, so you can’t blame paint for all your indoor air quality issues, but when selecting a finish or an adhesive or caulk, make sure the manufacturer gives a full account of all potential pollutants, not just VOCs.

Factory Finish
For certain painting and finishing projects, doing the job at home may not be the best option, if you want to limit the volume of pollutants released inside. For cabinets, shelves and flooring, you often have the option of a “baked-on” factory finish. This may require an extra day or two for delivery, but it’s well worth the time and cost for people sensitive to paint fumes. At the factory, high heat speeds the paint or stain’s release of VOCs and other toxins. That accelerated pollution happens in a controlled environment, not inside your home.

Like paints, adhesives are now marketed as low-VOC and eco-friendly. But as with paint, it’s important to get all of the facts—not simply to accept the branding pitch. For example, Gorilla brand last year released Gorilla PVC, an adhesive for use in PVC plumbing—a product it markets as “eco-friendly.” But if you read the fine print, the glue contains contains N-methylpyrrolidone (NMP), “a chemical known to the State of California to cause birth defects or other reproductive harm.”

For the most part, latex-based caulkings tend to release less toxins during application and initial drying than their solvent-based counterparts.

But the verdict is still out about how latex products impact air quality over the long term. It’s important, however, with both paints and caulkings, never to use exterior products indoors. They tend to contain more volatiles.

There’s also the question of durability. While 100 percent silicone caulk produces strong initial offgassing (some of which is from vinegar in the mix) it’s also likely to perform better than an acrylic-latex based product, particularly in wet areas.

As you can see, choosing a green paint or adhesive is not always as easy as reading a label. You have to shop carefully, understand how and when this product should be applied, and weigh whether the product’s air quality benefits are as good as they sound.



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