Paint goes green — in a rainbow of colors

“Painting, n. The art of protecting flat surfaces from the weather and exposing them to the critic.” Ambrose Bierce (1842-1914), American editorialist, journalist and short story writer, “The Devil’s Dictionary” (1881-1911)

From time to time I have touched on ways in which we can improve our quality of life and the environment. And, if you can make your home beautiful in the process, I would say that’s a win-win.

It’s no big secret, but paint is the latest product to go green.

As some of you may know, I love to paint. I’m not the least bit good at it, but it’s never stopped me from painting practically every wall in my house a different color. And each time I tackled another room, I practically asphyxiated myself with the paint smell.

Well, now, things are changing and paint is becoming more user and environmentally friendly. Government regulations are forcing changes in the paint industry resulting in more efficient, less toxic paints and coatings. Reduction of VOCs is part of the answer.

Wikipedia defines VOCs like this: “Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) are organic chemical compounds that have high enough vapor pressures under normal conditions to significantly vaporize and enter the atmosphere. A wide range of carbon-based molecules, such as aldehydes, ketones and other light hydrocarbons are VOCs. The United States Environmental Protection Agency defines a VOC as any organic compound that participates in a photoreaction.”

In addition to the EPA’s involvement in the regulation of VOCs, a lot of states have their own regulations, some similar and some more stringent.

The U.S. Green Building Council gives a quick history of paint and how it has changed over the years. “In the 1950s, paint was mostly oil based. They required solvents for cleanup, had strong odors and long drying time. By 1970, most paint was water based, offering consumers a lower-odor, quicker-drying product that could be cleaned with soap and water. However, even water-based paints contain VOCs, and VOCs contribute to ground level ozone, a component of smog.”

It goes on to ask: “What are the widely marketed, mainstream paint companies doing to meet increasingly stringent VOC regulations?” Apparently, companies are updating their formulas to stay in line with the new regulations.

The council reports that Dunn-Edwards Paint has focused on fewer potentially harmful ingredients and superior performance, “the two major characteristics that add the most value.”

Further in the U.S. Green Building Council publication, according to officials at Dunn-Edwards Paint, paint has always had certain sustainable qualities and “on a life cycle cost basis, paint is pretty green.” The reasons are that it serves as a finish and a protector, it adds reflectance to surfaces and, because new paints are long lasting and scrubbable, you don’t have to paint as often. And voilá, green!

For more information on VOCs and how paint companies are performing, visit the Web sites of your favorite paint companies or check out Green Seal, an independent, nonprofit that promotes the manufacture and use of environmentally sound products. Founded in 1989, Green Seal provides science-based environmental certification standards that are credible, transparent and essential in an increasingly educated and competitive marketplace.

Just a quick note, it’s not only paint that contributes VOCs to the atmosphere. Wikipedia goes on to say: “Considered a factor in indoor air quality issues such as sick building syndrome, VOCs are generated by photocopiers, carpets and furnishings as they are used or when components oxidize. One irritant, formaldehyde, is present in hundreds of office components, including wood and laminated furniture, shelving and wall covers. It also evaporates from paints, varnishes and chemicals used for sealing and finishing walls. Tobacco smoke can contribute high levels of VOCs.”

So, a lot of things we do and use contribute to our bad air. Let’s see, an obvious one: smoking.

Also, check your favorite vendors to see how they are helping us live lighter on the planet. If you don’t support those companies not helping us, they will eventually get the picture and get on board.

Carolyn Muse Grant is a founder and past president of the Architectural & Decorative Arts Society, as well as an interior design consultant/stylist specializing in home staging. Her Inside Spaces column appears weekly in the Home section of the Review-Journal. Send questions to


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