Everything from household paints and wallpaper to chemical strippers and glues emit harmful vapors, sometimes producing off-gassing for months following application. The key to creating a safer environment is to buy products with low volatile organic compounds or VOC's, avoid vinyl wallpaper in high moisture areas, and follow all recommendations regarding application, removal, and ventilation.
VOC's in Interior Paints VOC's are chemicals low in water solubility but high in vapor pressure. Emitted as gases, VOC's can trigger short-term adverse health reactions. Health consequences are greater for children and people with respiratory issues or compromised immune systems.
When selecting paints, look for low VOC content, lower gloss, and softer colors to reduce vapors and emissions.
The assumption that paints labeled as odor-free or containing no VOC's are toxin-free is false. Although VOC percentages appear on labels for interior paints, primers, and chemical wallpaper strippers, federally mandated disclosure only refers to its impact as an outdoor pollutant. Although they may be harmful to humans, some ingredients are exempt from VOC labeling because they don't negatively affect the ozone.
There are no federal regulations that detail the indoor safety of these products or identify their impact on humans. VOC concentrations can register ten times higher indoors than outdoors, but their impact on indoor air quality is not made clear from the label. However, labeling is still the only available gauge to homeowners seeking to reduce indoor toxins. Different states have different standards—California's are the most rigorous. Major paint manufacturers are developing products to meet higher indoor-air-quality standards and respond to market demand, but many smaller manufacturers are not. The only solution is to become aware of acceptable levels and safe practices. Compare labels, and make every effort to obtain the manufacturer's safety data sheet. If not provided at point of purchase, call the manufacturer or visit their website to obtain a copy.
Best Paints for Indoor Use Glossy paints contain more solvents than flat finishes. The VOC content in a flat paint may be just 50 g/l (grams per liter), while glossy paint could be as high as 200 g/l. The tints added to create color also contain VOC's. In order to be classified low VOC, a paint must have levels lower than 100 parts per gallon. In general, flat paints, low luster-paints, eggshells, and pastels have lower VOC levels than bright, high-gloss paints.
Glazes used as additives to faux finishes contain VOC's, but their impact is slight because they're used sparingly. Spray paints contain methylene chloride, a carcinogen in animals. Since this chemical converts to carbon monoxide, indoor spraying should be limited.
Always use adequate ventilation when painting indoors. Wait several days before occupying a freshly painted room. Never use exterior paints indoors, and stick with latex paint whenever possible. Buy only what you need, and safely discard the rest. VOC labeling is recent, so older cans may not list this info. Additionally, since gases continue to leak from closed paint cans, storing them for later use isn't advisable.
Reduce VOC emissions with non-vinyl wallpapers, self-applied pastes, and safe removal practices.
Wall Treatments While vinyl wallpapers emit VOC's, the odor dissipates more quickly than for paint. Wallpaper books provide flammability data, but most don't identify VOC content. Adhesives used in pre-pasted wallpaper may also emit some vapor, but the off-gassing isn't considered significant, according to American Lung Association Communications Director Robert Moffit. The bigger issues with vinyl wallpaper are the chemicals, like dioxin, released during a house fire and its potential to harbor mold. Mold growth behind wallpaper aggravates a plethora of health conditions and should be eradicated immediately.
Mold spreads quickly, with spores traveling undetected and often becoming airborne. Since mold growth requires removal of the wallpaper, Moffit suggests bringing trash bags to the site rather than transporting the wallpaper to a receptacle. Keep the doorway to the affected room closed and utilize window and fan ventilation. Wear gloves, goggles, and a high-quality mask for respiratory protection. Scrub the affected areas thoroughly with detergent and water, and allow to dry overnight. Avoid using vinyl wallpaper in humid climates, particularly on outer walls. Use bathroom fans religiously to keep humidity levels below 50 percent. Check moisture levels throughout your home using a humidistat available from your local hardware store.
Perhaps more toxic than the wall covering itself, are the chemicals used to remove wallpaper. If using a wallpaper remover, experts recommend a National Institute of Safety and Health (NIOSH)-approved respiratory mask. Steaming the wallpaper off is a safer bet.
Buying Green For occupants with pre-existing respiratory conditions, it makes sense to go green. Green manufacturers make a host of hybrid products ranging from wall coverings made from glass textiles to adhesives made with degradable raw materials. Eco-Fix, a Swedish product, is one such non-toxic wallpaper adhesive made from starch. While approximately 85 percent of wall coverings come pre-pasted, consumers can request papers that are free of pastes or adhesives and apply their own. Green products bear no federal ratings, but organizations like GreenSpec put out directories that list and describe reputable products. Other organizations like Green Guard test products.
The best way to reduce one's exposure is to choose low-VOC paint. Conventional oil-based paints contain about 50 percent petrochemicals by weight. VOCs are found in these paints at 420 to 450 parts per gallon. By contrast, most water-based or latex paints contain about 5-15 percent petrochemicals, but they still may contain harmful solvents.