Next time you redecorate it is worth considering the environmental impacts of the paints you choose.

So says Daniel Wurm, president of the Greenpainters, which was launched Australia wide.

"Paints, lacquers and varnishes are among the chemical everyday products that have a particularly distinct effect on environment and health. Solvents, monomers, softening agents, and biocides are only some of the components of these products that present the potential for serious ecological and toxicological risks during their production, manufacture, application, use, and ultimate disposal," Wurm says.

Paints are a major source of indoor air pollution. The US Environmental Protection Agency puts paint on its top-five list of environmental hazards. Conventional paints can make indoor air a chemical cocktail, even long after they have dried, as they continue to release petroleum based solvents, called Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) as they cure.

It is estimated that each year in Australia more than 80,000 tonnes of VOCs are released into the atmosphere, with the paint industry contributing significantly to this amount. Emission profiles from the EPA in California show that surface coatings are responsible for 9% of all VOC emissions.

Studies have found that the cumulative VOC emissions from architectural painting operations exceed the combined emissions from a variety of industrial operations. VOCs from solvent and paint emissions contribute to harmful ozone formation and peroxyacetyl nitrate.

According to the Masters Painters Association, ozone from paint emissions irritates eyes, nose, throat and lungs; reduces breathing capacity even in healthy adults and children; increases susceptibility to infection, hospital visits and admissions; and causes damage estimated to cost over millions of dollars per year to crops and buildings

Typical oil-based paint averages 350g/L VOCs, or between 35-50% of the paints volume. Even water-based acrylics, which are much less toxic, still contain 3-7% solvent content. The VOC content of paint and the CO2 emitted during manufacture are key contributors to environmental impact - primarily in the form of air pollution (petrochemical smog) and to a lesser degree greenhouse gases.

Just because a paint says it has no VOCs does not mean it does not give off hazardous vapours. Other chemicals in conventional paints include glycols, toulene, hydrocarbons, xylene, and ammonia. Mineral turpentine (used as a thinner and solvent) may contain up to 20% benzene, which is a confirmed carcinogen and mutagen in chronically exposed workers.

Many metal pigments used in paints (e.g. cadmium) are highly toxic and relatively rare resources. In several paints up to 20% of a tin by volume can be the pigment Titanium Dioxide, a product that can have a high environmental impact load associated with it. Acrylic paints are much safer than oil-based paints because they have less hydrocarbon solvents.

Solvent content in water-based paints tends to range from 0-200g/l compared to 250-750 g/l in oil based paints. Low VOC paints are up to 16g/l (GBCA) and ultra low to zero, 0-1g/l. However, acrylic paints typically include a range of biocides to protect the latex, which can include arsenic disulphide, phenol, copper, formaldehyde, carbamates, permethrin and quaternary ammonium compounds.

‘While biocide manufacturer’s claim that the formaldehyde in these products won’t come out, EPA data shows this is not the case’ (Maline N. 1999) Having these chemicals coating our walls and in the air we breathe is surely not desirable.

Another problem with synthetic paints is post-application wastage and disposal. The petrochemical paints that currently dominate the market are predominately derived from oil, a non-renewable resource.

Waste needs to be specially treated to avoid adverse environmental impacts. It has been estimated that water-soluble gloss paints require dilution of 40m to 1 to render their entry to the sewerage system harmless.

"Now there are safer alternatives to conventional paints," says Wurm of Greenpainters. "Consumers can choose to keep using the toxic conventional coatings, or they can use more sustainable products, such as low-voc acrylics or natural paints."

Low-VOC Acrylics: The benefits of choosing low or zero VOC paints are obvious - apart from being better for the environment, there are little or no fumes when painting.

In 1997 the Australian Paint Approval Scheme began an initiative within the Australian paint industry that aimed to reduce overall VOCs in locally manufactured paint. Current Australian standards require maximum VOC concentrations of 5g/L. In doing so, they were trying to catch up with European standards, which have already set lower targets for the future.

‘Many of the larger paint companies have produced products which have been certified to be 'environmentally friendly', but are still synthetic paints made from petrochemicals, with lower VOC concentrations. However, these products are still a step in the right direction, and should be considered by specifiers and consumers who wish to use acrylic paints’, Wurm said.

Natural paints are made using naturally occurring ingredients, and therefore do not require high levels of processing. Many of the ingredients are made from renewable resources, such as linseed oil, and citrus oil.

Natural paints use plant-derived solvents and binders instead of synthetic ones, so have VOC levels of between 0-1%. Natural paints are generally well-tolerated by humans and the environment. There is no testing on animals.

Ingredients used are printed on the label, or on a technical data sheet which can be consulted to establish whether allergic reactions are a risk.

With climate change impacting on our water resources, it is important that waste-water can be re-used. Water used to clean up after using natural paints can be used directly on gardens, without harmful effects to any plants, or groundwater contamination.

"You can have any color as long as it's 'green'!", said Wurm. "There is now a network of painters across Australia who are keen to use these products, and know how to help consumers choose the sustainable option."

Greenpainters are professional tradesmen established to provide advice, knowledge and skills to help consumers get the ideal environmentally-friendly, non-toxic coating for their painting and decorating project.

Greenpainters’s web-site provides objective summaries of sustainable paints and coatings, and information to help builders and renovators achieve the look they want while being eco-sensitive and health-conscious.