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Wild Green

Former Utne Reader senior editor Keith Goetzman on environmental issues from climate change to composting.


Water-Based Paints Pose Health Risk to Kids

 by Keith Goetzman


Tags: paint, health, chemicals, asthma, allergies, low-VOC paint, no-VOC paint, natural paint, nontoxic paint, milk paint, environment, Keith Goetzman,

Paint can 

Water-based paints have a reputation as a healthier, greener alternative to yesteryear’s oil-based paints, but a new study has found that children exposed to fumes from water-based paints have a heightened risk of asthma and allergies. The news is unsettling to any home-owning parent—like me—who has sought out low-VOC water-based paints to decorate a child’s room.

The researchers found that children exposed via bedroom paint to PGEs—the compounds propylene glycol and glycol ethers, used in many water-based paints—were two to four times more likely to suffer from allergies or asthma. Environmental Health News reports on the study, which was recently published in the journal of the Public Library of Science, PLoS ONE:

Scientists measured [PGEs] in the bedroom air of 400 toddlers and preschoolers, and discovered that the children who breathed them had substantially higher rates of asthma, stuffy noses and eczema.

It is the first human study to link harmful effects of these chemicals to common exposures in households, and it suggests that they exacerbate or even cause allergic disorders and asthma, according to the team of scientists from Harvard University and Sweden’s Kalstad University.

Since freshly painting a new baby’s room is a common DIY project for proud parents, it was this passage that seems to demand an exclamation point:

Children living in a house where at least one room was painted right before or after their birth had 63 percent more PGEs in their room than those whose houses had not been repainted.

The compounds can remain inside homes for months or even years, notes Environmental Health News. They are used not just in paints but also water-based varnishes and cleaning fluids such as glass cleaners.

Even if you don’t have kids, it’s surprising and frustrating to find that a widely used paint ingredient, often employed in “green” paints, appears to be harmful to human health. If it can cause allergies and asthma in kids, I certainly don’t want to breathe it either.

I’m sure the green paint industry is quietly wetting its pants about the possibility of this research being borne out by more studies. Not only do many low-VOC paints contain PGEs, so do some “no-VOC” paints that have them at levels low enough to wear the misleading label. And the tints added to color paints often contain them as well.

More research will surely follow, and I’ll track the issue here at Wild Green. In the meantime, if you’re concerned enough by this news to avoid PGEs altogether, you’ll want to explore low-toxin, nontoxic, or natural paints such as those made by Safecoat, Keim or Yolo, or the milk paints made by several different companies.

And you might want to watch what you eat: Propylene glycol is an FDA approved food-grade additive.

Source: Environmental Health News 

Image by cuttlefish, licensed under Creative Commons.