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Paint for Life

Matilda Lee

16th February, 2009

Quick fading and blandly coloured they are not. Eco paints may be thicker and require a primer but the benefits, not least to our health, outweigh the extra labour writes Matilda Lee

‘I had never used eco paints before, and I never will again.’ Not the most encouraging comment to hear from someone who has just painted three rooms of your house, but our decorator was at the end of her last day.

My husband is asthmatic and we have a two-year-old son, so when repainting our new house, naturally we chose paints least likely to irritate. Eco paints, as opposed to most conventional paints, are based on natural oils and clay instead of petrochemicals. Still, we didn’t know what to expect.

Seen for the first time, we were pleasantly surprised. All the colours looked fabulous. And a day after the paint went on, miraculously, there was absolutely no smell.

From our decorator’s point of view, however it meant applying a coat of primer plus up to three coats of paint, and more elbow grease because the eco paints were much thicker.

Once our decorator had had a night’s rest, I inquired again: ‘From a labour point of view, it’s more difficult,’ she says. ‘But from a health point of view, it’s a 100 times better. I’ve never come across paint with no smell. Normally when I’ve done a whole day’s work of painting I usually have some kind of headache, but with this paint, there was absolutely nothing.’

The Red Cherry we used in the kitchen is from Earthborn, founded by John Dison in 2002. Earthborn’s paints are manufactured by Ecotech in Germany, but their colour palette is unique to the UK.

‘Eco paints started out pretty environmentally friendly but were rubbish,’ says Dison. ‘Today, choosing eco paints means you get more for your money. They perform as well as conventional paints with added benefits.’ So why are they difficult to spread? ‘Most paints have lots of water and are particularly thin –our paints are based on clays, plants and earth pigments.’

On the dining and living room walls we used paints from Self-Coat, which offers a palette of more than 600 colours and a colour matching service. Based on natural oils, only 6 per cent of its make-up is water, which is why it is thicker and more laborious to apply.

Importantly, the paints are breathable to accommodate the natural contraction and expansion of the moisture. If paint is not porous then it starts to bubble, crack and
peel. A fact that points to Self-Coat’s confidence in extending a 10-year guarantee if there is any fading.

Self-Coat paints, initially developed in South Africa but manufactured near Manchester, are free of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), solvents, petrochemicals and fungicides.

Daniele Ronchese, Self-Coat sales manager, says, ‘There is little effort to raise awareness about paints as the impacts of exposure are long-term.’

With the rise of the ‘sick building syndrome’, our homes have been breeding ill health. Our decorator may have tired arms, but at least she, and we, can expect peace of mind.


What’s that smell?

Conventional paints can include acrylic, polyurethanes (PUs), PVC and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) . VOCs are carbon-containing compounds that become a gas at room temperature during the manufacture, application and deterioration of paint. When paints ‘off gas’, the fumes that come off the wall could be the emissions from VOC solvents evaporating into your home.

According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, the health effects of VOCs include eye, nose, and throat irritation; headaches, loss of co-ordination, nausea; damage to liver, kidney and central nervous system. Some are suspected or known to cause cancer in humans. By the end of this year, all EU paints must include a VOC-content label. By 2010, when EU legislation tightens, VOC content must drop to 30 grammes per litre from the current 75 grammes for water-based paint and 400 grammes for solvent-based paint.

This article first appeared in the Ecologist November 2007


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