Paints and architectural coatings contain heavy metals and organic solvents. Organic solvents emit gaseous chemicals, known as volatile organic compounds (VOCs), during production and storage, as well as during and after application. In enclosed areas, exposure can cause respiratory and eye irritation, as well as headaches and fatigue. When exposed to sunlight, reactive VOCs combine with nitrogen to form ground-level ozone, which can irritate the respiratory system and damage lung tissue
Latex and oil-based paints are both formulated with petrochemicals, the extraction of which can cause damage to air, water and soil, though water-based latex paints generally contain fewer toxic materials and VOCs than oil-based paints and do not require dangerous solvents for clean-up. However, when application equipment is washed with water, the resulting wastewater may be washed into waterways, disrupting aquatic ecosystems.
Though lead and mercury have generally been eliminated in architectural paints, manufacturers still use small amounts of heavy metals like cadmium, which can leach into soil and water. Preservatives like formaldehyde, a known human carcinogen and respiratory irritant, are often added to paint, as are pigments (or colorants), which contain additional VOCs. The addition of pigments may also decrease the durability of paint and increase the amount of paint required for coverage. Light color paints not only contain fewer pigments (and thus fewer VOCs), but are more reflective, increasing the dispersion of light, potentially reducing the requirements for (and energy consumed by) artificial light.
Unused paint, along with its associated containers and application equipment, often winds up in the waste stream. Though the federal government does not classify architectural paint as a hazardous waste, some states, like California and Massachusetts, have stricter regulations that do include architectural paint. Recycling paint can keep waste out of the landfill and replace virgin materials, reducing the need for further materials extraction, but recycled-content paints may be of inconsistent quality and the same toxin and solvent issues apply. “Natural paints,” are made from non-toxic ingredients like soy, milk, and silicate but may also be of inconsistent quality.
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