Eco Priority Guide: Paints

Overview

Paints as a general category have some surprisingly toxic components. While there are healthy paints, many conventional paints are responsible for the occupational disease 'Painter's Syndrome' and are significantly involved in 'Sick Building Syndrome'. The UN International Agency on Research into Cancer (IARC) categories painting as a 'Hazardous Profession'.  Nonetheless it is only in recent times in Australia that the toxicity during and after application has been recognized.

Paints are generally classified as solvent-based or water-based. Solvent-based coatings contain between 30 and 70% Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs-see below) by weight and most water-based coatings contain approximately 6% VOC. In Europe, 'natural paints' and modified, more healthy zero VOC acrylic and low VOC urethane paints have existed for over twenty years.  While these original natural and modified VOC paints are now available in Australia, there is a whole new generation of paints such as the electron beam and ultra violet cured paints that have yet to have any significant impact in the Australian market.

There is a general perception (somewhat warranted) that some natural and modified VOC paints have some application, life-cycle durability and maintenance issues. Changes in composition and application techniques as well as consumer expectations may be necessary to make the full transition to Natural paints, although there are now low VOC acrylic paints that meet all expectations (albeit not always in the medium or deep tint ranges).

Eco-Priorities

The following issues relate to both potential positive and negative issues associated with each product class:

Priority Order

UV/EB cured PUR

Acrylic

Low VOC Acrylic

Alkyd ('Oil')

Convent'l

PUR

Convent'l

Epoxide

Powder Coats

Plant based

Cement/

silicate

1

Health+

Health

Health+*

Health

Health

Health

Health+

Health+*

GHG +

2

Toxics, GHG

Toxics, GHG

Toxics, GHG

Toxics, GHG

Toxics, GHG

Toxics, GHG

GHG

GHG

Health+** Resources

3

Resources

Resources

Resources

Resources

Resources

Resources

Resources

Life cycle

Life cycle

4

 

 

Life-cycle

 

 

 

 

Resources +

 

Issues of concern?

No

With VOC content

No

Yes

Yes

Yes

 

No

No

Table Key

UV/EB Cured      = Ultraviolet or Electron Beam Cured (includes acrylics and polyurethanes)
Acrylic               = Water based acrylic emulsions
PVA                  = Polyvinyl acetate
Alkyd                = 'Oil'-based paints predominantly thinned with turpentine
PUR                  = One and two pack polyurethanes
Epoxide epoxies = Powdercoats, One and two pack water and solvent based
Natural              = Natural material emulsions using natural oils including citrus
Cement             = Cement based paints

The major general eco-priorities for paints across the category are:

  1. Human health impacts
  2. Toxicity to air, land and water
  3. GHG emissions
  4. Resource use (particularly Titanium Dioxide)
  5. Life-cycle issues - durability and maintenance

*   Generally only an issue for persons with very high levels of chemical sensitivity, but depends on product.

**  Depends on admixtures. May include acrylic compounds.

+   beneficial health impacts compared to original formulations  or other coatings

Making a Decision

Paints generally have three main components:

  • resins, which form the final paint film after application and drying of the coating;
  • pigments, which produce the desired colors and are composed of finely divided organic and inorganic materials; and
  • solvents, which act as carriers for the resins and pigments, and evaporate as the paint film forms during the drying process

On 29 June 2001, the National Environment Protection Council (NEPC) agreed to develop a National Environment Protection Measure (NEPM) for five substances known as "air toxics": benzene, formaldehyde, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, toluene and xylenes. Four of these are common components of paint.

They are part of the class of compounds known as VOCs or Volatile Organic Compounds that can have significant health impacts. Australia's National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) has accepted the World Health Organization's definition of VOCs as:

"... all organic compounds in the boiling range of 50-260 °C, excluding pesticides."

The extent to which VOCs can cause health problems depends on their toxicity, concentration and the duration of personal exposure. Chronic low-level exposure to some VOCs has been associated with adverse health effects, an example being the link between benzene and leukemia. (Environment Australia Air Toxics website)

VOCs commonly found in conventional paints are*:

Acetone

Methanol

Benzene

Methyl ethyl ketone

Cyclohexane

Methyl isobutyl ketone

Dichloromethane

n-Hexane

Ethanol

Toluene

Ethylene glycol

Total volatile organic compounds

2-Ethoxyethanol acetate

Xylenes

(*Environment Australia Air Toxics website)

While the VOCs in the table above all have some health impacts, the following compounds are the major health detractors: Benzene Toluene, Xylene, Formaldehyde, Biocides, Cadmium, Turpene d-limonene, Titanium Dioxide and Metallic Pigments. Information about these compounds can be found in our glossary.

Decision-Making Checklist

  1. Does a thing have to be made or used? If so, does it create a net benefit?
  2. Fate: Start with the end in mind. If the product is not reusable, fully biodegradable or highly recyclable at the end of life, or facilitating these activities, its not sustainable.
  3. Energy: What will the product's likely net energy balance be over its life? Will it save more energy than it uses?
  4. Durability: Does the product embody an appropriate level of durability for its accessibility, criticality and maintenance profile?
  5. Biodiversity: Is there a chance that the product has had a negative impact on biodiversity? Erosion of biodiversity is a one-way street.
  6. Toxicity: Is the product toxic and or persistent in the environment at any stage in its life cycle? If so, don't use it.
  7. Resources: Does the product use rare resources/ create a net negative flow of resources (e.g. poor maintainability/ high maintenance requirements)
  8. Is the product socially sustainable?
  9. Does the product, or its use, contribute to delivering synergy benefits in other building systems?

Source: Adapted from Andrew Walker Morison

Quick Guide - Paints

EB/UV Cured - Example Powder coats, Polyurethanes

For:

  • Low to zero solvent, reduced worker health impacts
  • Release virtually no hazardous air particles
  • Reduced paint volume, raw resource use
  • Factory applied, highly efficient low waste technology
  • Up to 90% energy savings against thermal curing systems

Against:

  • Products availability limited in Australia

Acrylic - Run-of-market, Taubmans, Dulux, Wattyl etc

For:

  • Greatly reduced VOC emissions compared to Alkyd paints
  • Reduced impacts from clean-up - water based not mineral turps based

Against:

  • Potential ongoing low-level emissions of range of products including formaldehyde and benzene
  • Use of fungicides and biocides to protect latex
  • In some applications may not give durability and wash & wear performance of alkyd paints
  • Significant ingredients imported only
  • Very small ongoing emissions of acrylic monomer. Problematic for people with high chemical sensitivity.

Acrylic - Low VOC- Wattyl ID Breakthrough, Dulux Enviro2 & Aquanamel, OIKOS

For:

  • VOCs reduced by a further 20-40%
  • Reduced impacts from clean-up - water based not mineral turps based

Against:

  • Still some potential from ongoing low-level emissions of range of products including formaldehyde and benzene
  • Use of fungicides and biocides to protect latex
  • In some applications may not give durability and wash & wear performance of alkyd paints
  • Significant ingredients imported only
  • Very small ongoing emissions of acrylic monomer. Problematical for people with high chemical sensitivity

Acrylic - Zero VOC- Rockcote, Oikos

For:

  • Low VOCs across all tint ranges
  • Reduced impacts from clean-up - water based not mineral turps based
  • Some manufacturers have developed gloss/durability characteristics approaching alkyd

Against:

  • Potential ongoing low-level emissions of range of products including formaldehyde
  • Use of fungicides and biocides to protect latex
  • some acrylic enamels may not give durability and wash & wear performance of alkyd paints
  • Significant ingredients imported only
  • Very small ongoing emissions of acrylic monomer. May be problematic for people with high chemical sensitivity.

Alkyd - Oil-based paints - Run-of-market

For:

  • Does not use the full range of biocides and fungicides used by acrylic paints
  • In some applications may be more durable than acrylics
  • High gloss and smooth finishes

Against:

  • High toxicity, high VOC emissions with known acute and carcinogenic health effects, though 'high alkyd' paints can reduce this somewhat
  • Significant clean up impacts from need for mineral-based solvents
  • Significant ingredients imported only
  • High embodied energy

Polyurethane - Run-of-market

For:

  • Durability

Against:

  • High toxic, VOC emissions with known health effects
  • Significant clean up impacts from need for organic solvents
  • Significant ingredients imported only
  • High embodied energy
  • Cyanide emissions during application and smoke generation

Polyurethane - Modified VOC and Iso Cyanate content - GVA/ICSAM

For:

  • Durability

Against:

  • Reduced toxic VOC emissions with known health effects,
  • Significant clean up impacts from need for mineral-based solvents
  • Significant ingredients imported only
  • High embodied energy
  • Reduced cyanide and VOC emissions during application and smoke generation

Epoxide - Run-of-market

For:

  • Durability

Against:

  • Highly allergenic constituents
  • Toxic VOCs
  • Significant ingredients imported only
  • High embodied energy
  • Generate high levels of hazardous liquids and solids during base metal preparation

Epoxide - Low VOC - Jaxxon Pearlescent floor coatings

For:

  • Low VOC
  • Durability

Against:

  • Significant ingredients imported only
  • High embodied energy

Powder coats - Zero VOC

For:

  • Zero VOC
  • Low material wastage due to material recovery during application

Against:

  • Difficult to patch without high VOC spray cans
  • Significant ingredients imported only
  • High embodied energy

Natural Paints - Livos, Bio-Paints

For:

  • Can be based on greatly reduced VOC-impact natural turpenes
  • May be hydrocarbon free, reduced LCA impacts, GHG
  • Low Embodied Energy
  • May be based on biodegradable non-toxic ingredients
  • May be locally produced
  • Breathing surface
  • Abundant raw materials

Against:

  • Durability and maintainability in some paints not as good as alkyd or acrylics
  • Caseine-based paints susceptible to fungal attack
  • Application of some paints can be labour and skill intensive

Lime Washes & Cement Paints - Porters, Murobond, Bauwerk

For:

  • Can be very low/ VOC free
  • Durable and suitable for exterior applications
  • High coverage
  • Breathing surface
  • Low embodied energy
  • Abundant raw materials

Against:

  • Not easily scrubbed in interior uses
  • Rough to touch

 

Silicate Paints - Keim, Radcote

For:

  • Zero VOC free
  • Durable and suitable for exterior applications
  • High coverage
  • Penetrates mineral substrates and forms micro crystalline bond with surface
  • Breathing surface
  • Low embodied energy
  • Abundant raw materials

Against:

  • Only bonds to clean mineral surfaces
  • Not easily scrubbed in interior uses
  • Rough to touch

 

Further Information

For more detailed information on this topic admin@ecospecifier.org

 

Internet Resources

  • Environment Australia Air Toxics Website

A complete listing and rundown on all major atmospheric and indoor air pollutants, their impacts and occurrence. http://www.environment.gov.au/atmosphere/airquality/publications/sok/index.html.

  • National Industrial Chemicals Notification and Assessment Scheme - NICNAS Website

NICNAS scientifically assesses industrial chemicals for their health and environmental effects and makes recommendations for safe use. Assessments of more than 1,000 chemicals are available free on this site. http://www.nicnas.gov.au/

  • Safe Work Australia, website.

The latest information on occupational health and safety information, policy and practices. http://www.safeworkaustralia.gov.au/sites/SWA

  • European Union Ecolabel for 'Indoor Paints and Varnishes'

Details the target for manufacturers of paints and varnishes to meet, to be eligible for the EcoLabel on their products. Although a European site, the material is informative for Australian suppliers wishing to inform themselves of the criteria they could be satisfying. http://europa.eu/legislation_summaries/other/l28020_en.htm

All external references last accessed on 27/03/13.

References

  • Demkin, J., Ed The American Institute of Architects, (1996). Environmental Resource Guide. New York, John Wiley and Sons.
  • Maline N. (1999). "Paint the Room Green." Environmental Building News 8(2).
  • Thurtell L. Ed (2003). A-Z Chemicals in the Home. Sydney, Choice Books.