The Ultimate Guide to Toxic Paints for Environmentally Friendly Painting

The Risks of Using Toxic Paints

When most of us pick up a paintbrush we do not fully consider or realise the damaging effects that using toxic paints can have on the environment and our health. 

Even many professional painters do not fully understand exactly how paint is actually made, and many do not opt for environmentally friendly paints. Paints are traditionally synthetic and made up of a concoction of different chemicals. Pigments to create colour, Resin to bind the particles together and provide adhesion, a Solvent to act as a carrier and finally, additives. These additives can offer a range of features depending on the paint usage including mould resistance and increased drying time.

Vinyl and acrylic paints also contain plastic compounds, some of which include formaldehyde and arsenic which are highly toxic. Formaldehyde has been linked to damage and irritation of the eyes, nose and throat, and if ingested can be fatal.  

Ever wonder how paint dries in the way it does? It is the mixture of all of these compounds that creates a chemical process which results in the paint drying fully with a smooth finish.

Scarily, a World Health Organization (WHO), report shows that those that come into regular contact with paints have a 20-40% increased risk of developing some cancers. Other reports also suggest a potential link to neurological disorders. 

Symptoms of exposure to toxic paints include headaches, allergies, skin irritations, aggravation of asthma, eye irritations, and perhaps most worryingly it can increase the stress levels on the vital organs.

With all this in mind, environmentally friendly paints are thankfully on the rise, however many are still not fully aware of the risks of using toxic paints.

Advice on Old Lead Paint

The majority of lead based paint was banned for sale in the United Kingdom in 1992. Up unto this date, lead compounds were commonly used in various types of paints and varnishes as a pigment and drying agent. 

Old Lead paints and varnish that is buried beneath non-lead coatings, or is in a very good condition is unlikely to be dangerous. The risk factor comes into play however, when these surfaces are disturbed. If lead paint is disturbed during a renovation for example, this can loosen the particles and allow them to become an exposure risk.

If you are planning on carrying out some building or decorating work and are unsure about preexisting lead paint, you should always call in an expert paint inspection company to check that you are renovating safely.  Older buildings in particular are likely to have high levels of lead and other toxic heavy metals such as copper arsenate that were commonly added to paints in the Victorian era. In some cases, it may be better to cover over these areas of lead paint rather than risking disturbing it and releasing the toxic matter.

At Paint Inspection Ltd, we are able to survey sites and provide tailored advice on the finish according to the building.   



What are VOCs?

It is commonly believed that lead is the most toxic element to avoid when it comes to ensuring paints are safe to use. Whilst lead should of course be avoided, unfortunately the majority of paints do include many other toxic chemical compounds too. One example of a chemical found commonly in toxic paints is Propane Sulfone –  a known dangerous carcinogen.

The most damaging byproduct of toxic paints to our environment are the VOCs. These are Volatile Organic Compounds and are the chemicals that are released into the air during the paint’s drying process. 

These VOCs then react with the oxygen in the atmosphere to create ‘ozone’. Whilst this element is beneficial for the higher Ozone Layer as it prevents UV damage from reaching the surface of the Earth, the closer it is to the ground level the more hazardous it is to life forms.

Above a certain concentration, Ozone damages respiratory and mucous tissues in animals and also plant tissues. 

Ozone is the most toxic element that makes up pollution or ‘smog’ as it is commonly known. Ozone and the other components of smog are extremely hazardous to human health, especially that of children, senior citizens or people with respiratory or heart conditions. Even in low concentrations, Ozone can attack the tissue of the lungs with devastating results.

VOC’s are particularly hazardous when using indoor paints as the fumes are not able to disperse as freely and these toxic fumes can hang in the air for longer. Indoor air quality is crucial to a healthy respiratory system as indoor air can contain 2 – 5 times more contaminants than outdoor.

For this reason it is absolutely crucial that care is taken when toxic paints are used, especially for indoor applications. Exterior non-toxic paints are also available.

Why are VOCs Added to Paint if They are so Toxic? 

Manufacturers commonly add VOCs to their paints as they can prevent paint from freezing and also slows down drying times to make the paint last longer. Like harmful additives that are often added to food products, these chemicals have been used for a long time to help preserve paint products. Thankfully, manufacturers are now being pressured to develop zero VOC or low VOC non-toxic paint alternatives.  This is due to increasing public demand for more eco paint and environmentally friendly painting products. 

It is also important to be aware that other paint products such as primers and varnishes can also contain VOCs. When sourcing materials, look for non toxic primers as well as paints.

Tips for using Toxic Paints

We would always advise that you choose low or no-VOC paints, however if there is no other non-toxic paint option you should follow these steps:

  • Always work in a very well ventilated area
  • Wear appropriate PPE to ensure fume exposure is limited and the skin is protected
  • Avoid Prolonged Exposure
  • Do not spend time or sleep in a newly painted room until the smell of the fumes has dissipated entirely



What Kind of Paints are Eco-friendly?

Like many day to day activities, we forget the potentially damaging effects that actions such as using toxic paints can have on our environment. It is not just the toxic paint itself that we should be concerned about – it’s the byproducts of toxic paint that can be the most damaging to our atmosphere. 

Due to the growing realisation and support for protecting the environment, more non-toxic paints are thankfully available. If you are looking for eco-friendly painting solutions, always opt for non-toxic paint where possible. If you cannot find environmentally friendly paint or non toxic primers, look for low-VOC paints as this will greatly limit the impact on the environment. 

Types of Non-Toxic Paint

There are several different varieties of non-toxic, eco paint available. These can be used in the same areas and ways you would normally use other paints. Interior and exterior non toxic paints are available in a range of different finishes so there is no compromising on the finish when choosing a sustainable paint.

The best zero VOC paint to use would be a natural paint as they are made without any nasty chemicals or additives that might damage the environment or your health. These paints are used with a variety of naturally derived ingredients including chalk, clay, plant dyes and water.  Natural paints or ‘eco paints’ are the ultimate solution for eco friendly painting.

If you are not able to source a natural non-toxic paint, look for ‘Zero VOC’ paints. Zero VOC does not mean that there are no chemicals at all, but it does mean that it contains 5grams/litre or less meaning the impact on the environment and health is more negligible. If you are looking for something purely ‘eco’ however, it is always wise to check the labels as the product could still contain biocides, colour tints and some low level VOCs.

Another option for avoiding toxic paints, is to look for low-VOC paints. These paints are thinned with water as a carrier which dilutes the concentration of VOC down to a safer level. 



Choosing the Best Non-Toxic Paint

When shopping for an eco friendly non-toxic paint you should always check the label for the VOC level. This will be listed in ‘grams per litre’ and you will find that this can range from anything between 5g/l and 200g/l. The target is to find the paint that has the lowest possible VOC level as this will mean less toxic pollutants are released into the air. 

Even zero or low VOC paints can unfortunately still have small amounts of components such as formaldehyde, acetone and ammonia which can still be damaging to health. This is why you should still ensure that you follow necessary precautions such as good ventilation, when handling or working with any kind of paint. 

Top Tips for Environmentally Friendly Painting

Our Ultimate Guide to Toxic Paints for Environmentally Friendly Painting covers all the key facts and things you need to know about avoiding toxic paint products and limiting VOC exposure. 

Here is a summary of our top tips for safe painting :

  • Always check the ‘VOC’ levels on the paint to ensure it is below 5g/l
  • Avoid disturbing areas that may have previously been coated with a lead paint (always consult an expert if you are unsure)
  • Specify water based paints where possible 
  • Avoid paints with high titanium oxide content
  • Do not purchase a paint product if you are unsure of the contents
  • Always ensure there is adequate ventilation when painting
  • Call in a specialist paint inspection company to check you are working in line with UK regulations.

At Paint Inspections, we provide top quality paint inspection services for sectors including rail, oil & gas, marine, highway and renewable energy. We will ensure that your paint finishes are safe and suitable for commercial use, and are available to answer any of your questions about toxic or non-toxic paint finishes.