We are no strangers to the saying ‘nothing a fresh coat of paint won’t fix’, but not everyone stops to consider the health and environmental impacts of the tins of colour we use to spruce up our homes.
Typically covering 80 per cent of a building’s surfaces, paints are made up of a variety of ingredients, some which are more benign than others. Possibly the most harmful chemical found in paints are Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), which are carbon-containing solvents that vaporise into the air readily as paint dries.
These VOCs help make paint easier to spread as well as more durable, but often have negative effects on the health of building occupants. Some exposure to such products can cause headaches, dizziness and nausea, while higher exposure levels can have more serious consequences, such as kidney damage and even cancer.
“There are studies that show that you get 70 per cent of the toxins that you absorb into your body through the air you breathe inside buildings,” says Stuart McPhee, national sales manager of non-toxic paint manufacturer, ecolour.
“Eight per cent comes from the food and water we eat and drink, but it is the air that we breathe inside buildings that is doing the most damage to us, and paint is the biggest contributor.”
Some VOCs also form ground level ozone by releasing odoriferous chemicals that lead to ‘urban smog’. This leads to environmental repercussions, with the paint industry responsible for up to 16 per cent of all VOC emissions in Australia.
However, these problems can be avoided or at least minimised by specifying low or zero VOC paints. These paints usually emit less odours, and offer faster drying times and non-yellowing properties.
Read: the key benefits of zero and low VOC paints
Here are eight low or zero VOC products available in Australia:
The Eco Style rande are non-toxic and zero VOC. The formulation was developed in Australia with the most punishing and high traffic environments in mind: child care centres, schools, hospitals and public buildings. Eco Style Paints are 100 per cent acrylic making them incredibly tough and low maintenance.
Rockcote says their Eco Style paints adhere better and have far superior abrasive scrub resistance than the competition (independent testing, 2012), making them a good choice for education environments, health care, lasting refurbishments and government buildings where there can be no compromise on performance.
They are free of dangerous chemicals and solvents including formaldehyde, glycol ethers, phthalates and crystalline quartz silica.
Ecolour paints are premium quality water based paints that are 100 per cent free of Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs). They are accredited by Good Environmental Choice Australia (GECA) and recognised by The Green Building Council of Australia (GBCA) for assessing Green Star projects.
The manufacturer claims its range is suitable for interior, exterior and timber finishes, is durable, easy to apply, provides great coverage, and matchable to any colour.
Ecolour was used on the 2014 Sustainability Award winning project The Commons by Breathe Architecture.
Made from natural clay in an ecologically sustainable manner, this paint is the healthiest choice for chemically sensitive people because it is totally odourless, has zero VOC and provides a very healthy living environment. Made in Germany, it has as the Ecoflower label for high performance with high environmental consideration.
Clay paint can also be worked in various ways because of its natural clay properties to achieve various decorative effects.
It’s suitable for interior walls and ceilings in domestic and some commercial situations but only suitable for exterior walls if protected from frost and excessive rain. It’s not suitable for areas requiring frequent washing and is about 30% more expensive than acrylic paint.
The Taubmans Pure Performance Interior is a 100 per cent acrylic, high performance, water-based paint formulated for interior surfaces. Exclusively engineered with Microban, an antibacterial protection which inhibits the growth of harmful bacteria, mildew, mould and fungus, it has a low VOC and odour formula, and is scruff resistant and highly washable.
The range is approved by the National Asthma Council Australia’s Sensitive Choice program, and recognised with the Green Building Council of Australia’s credit criteria.
It was utilised in the $2 billion Fiona Stanley Hospital in Perth, Western Australia, designed by FSH Design Collaboration (Silver Thomas Hanley, Hassell, Hames Sharley) and developed by Brookfield Multiplex.
This product is a premium high film build prepcoat designed to even out surfaces and create a level 5 finish. With a high opacity and easy to sand, it is suitable for interior plasterboards and may be used to develop a smooth, consistent surface on interior timbers. It can also be used under water and oil based prepcoats.
Designed for getting the job finished quickly, the Professional Fast Finish range is optimised for spray application, and delivers a reduction in required labour times (excluding preparation), as well as a professional premium finish. The Level 5 Prep Coat meets the APAS low VOC targets.
The Professional Fast Finish range also contains Water Based Enamels, which are premium acrylic products suitable for use on interior and exterior doors, window frames and trim that meet the GBCA target for doors, windows and trim . As the range was only released this month, there are no available case studies as of yet.
Resene’s Zylone Sheen VOC Free produces a smooth yet tough surface. Drying to a low sheen finish, it is a low odour product with no unwanted VOCs, which means painted areas can be used soon after spaces are painted instead of having to wait days for the odour to disappear.
Zyone Sheen VOC free is available in white, light, pastel, mid, and deep tones, and approved by Environmental Choice. It is suitable for interior works, and has a controlled low-angle sheen to minimise substrate imperfections. Its washability improves as the paint hardens, and will not penetrate chalky and powdery surfaces.
The product was used in the GHD office fit-out on the Newcastle waterfront, where paints were specified based on the GBCA’s limits for low VOC emissions. Zylone Sheen VOC free waterborne low sheen adorned most of the wall areas, complemented by the Resene Enamacryl gloss waterborne enamel on trims and joinery, and Resene Zylone 20 waterborne flat on ceilings.
The use of these paints has allowed the design team to deliver a high quality and healthy space for the occupants.
Porter’s Mineral Paint is a premium silicate paint providing colourfastness and durability. Designed to be painted onto render and other unpainted masonry surfaces, Mineral Paint penetrates and reacts with the substrate to ‘petrify’, a process known as ‘silification’. What results is a cured paint forming an inorganic structure with a strong bond to the inorganic substrate which cannot peel, crack or flake.
Solvent free, non-combustible and with no odour, Porter’s Mineral Paint is coloured with UV resistant natural powdered oxides for colour longevity and depth of colour. It has a guarantee of 25 years and an expected lifespan of 30 years, and contains 14 grams of VOC in a litre – far less than the APAS target level of 70 grams per litre for this product.
Porter’s Mineral Paints were specified at 27 buildings at Scots College in Sydney, including the Aspinall House by Conybeare Morrison. According to project architect Judith Rintoul, the product was chosen for its suitability with the heritage buildings, with the paints’ low VOC properties an added bonus.
“A lot of the buildings on campus are beautiful heritage buildings, so they needed a paint that breathes. The Porter’s paints also offered a very flat colour, which looks great on a heritage building as compared to something with a sheen,” says Rintoul.
“The colours are also colourfast, with Porter’s Paints grinding the pigments straight into the paint, so the colours are very rich and have a lot of complexity. It has virtually transformed the entrance to the reception in the college, and stood up to the heavy duty requirements of the boys.”
The Mythic Exterior Flat is a 100 per cent zero VOC flat acrylic paint that provides mildew and fade resistant protection for a variety of exterior surfaces. It is ideal for previously painted or primed surfaces such as vinyl, rendered, aluminium gutters, timber, primed metal, shutters, hardboard, composite board, masonry and fencing.
Featuring low odours and stain resistance, the product was used by Interform Design on the exterior surfaces of a single dwelling home in Manuka, ACT.
Architect Albert Bonansea says the team wanted a paint with a matte look and durable surface, which is suitable for the home's heritage site.
"We were also working to a tight schedule, so the lack of odour and toxins helped us to speed up the process, allowing occupants and workers to return back into the spaces within a short period of time," says Bonansea.