In recent years, people have become increasingly aware of the hazards in everyday products and substances. Carpet, packaged foods, household chemicals and even paint now have demonstrated health risks. Since the 2000s, the popularity of zero- and low-VOC paints call into question just how toxic standard latex paints are.
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Paints are made of a mixture of pigments, fillers and solvents. These solvents assist in spreading the pigments and reduce the development of mold and bacteria. Latex paints use mostly water as a solvent, which make them a much less toxic alternative to oil-based paints. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency states that water-soluble interior latex paints are low in toxicity if ingested in small quantities. They also clean up with water, so cleaning does not require harmful solvents.
While interior latex paint is not highly toxic, exterior latex paint may contain mercury for use as a preservative and bacteria-killing biocide. Though paint companies have voluntarily removed mercury from exterior latex formulas, it is still legal for them to contain mercury. For this reason, exterior latex paint should never be used indoors. This is to avoid any possible risk of prolonged exposure to mercury, which can affect the nervous system of both children and adults.
The main issue with interior latex paint is not with the paint itself, but with the fumes released by the paint as it is drying and over time. The fumes are made of organic compounds, or VOCs, which are gases like benzene, formaldehyde and toluene. The actual gases depend on the formula of the paint. Generally, the more heavily tinted and glossy the paint, the more VOCs are released.
VOCs cause reactions in most everyone, but especially affect children, the elderly, those with compromised immune systems and pregnant women. The American Pregnancy Association recommends that pregnant women should not paint or be around paint fumes. VOCs, especially formaldehyde, are blamed for causing headaches, nausea, fatigue and irritations of the eyes, nose and throat. According to a 2006 article in the Vancouver Sun, VOCs may even be responsible for liver disease and lung cancer.
The best way to minimize the risk of VOCS is to use zero- and low-VOC latex paint formulas. It is essential to open windows and doors when painting for maximum ventilation and to take plenty of fresh air breaks. If possible, place a box fan with the airflow directed outward in an open window to remove some of the fumes. Paint objects outside and do not bring them inside until the paint has dried.