Green Paints: Check Those Labels

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Image by Flickr user: Napalm filled tires / Creative Commons

Water-based paints are reputed to be a healthier, greener alternative to yesteryear’s oil-based paints, but hold those rollers a moment: A new study has found that children exposed 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, reports Environmental Health News (Oct. 20, 2010).

For the study, first published in the journal of the Public Library of Science, PLoS ONE (, scientists from Harvard University and Sweden’s Karlstad University measured airborne PGEs in the bedrooms of 400 toddlers and preschoolers. They found that the children with the most exposure to the compounds were more prone to asthma, stuffy noses, and eczema.

“It is the first human study to link harmful effects of these chemicals to common exposures in households,” reports Environmental Health News.

Lots of green-minded consumers are seeking out paints containing low or no volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, which are often marketed for their health and environmental benefits. But many low-VOC paints contain PGEs, and so do some “no-VOC” paints that have the compounds at levels low enough to wear the misleading label. The paints’ color tints often add PGEs as well, and the chemicals are also used in water-based varnishes and cleaning fluids such as glass cleaners.

The airborne compounds can remain inside homes for months or even years, notes Environmental Health News. DIY painters seeking to avoid PGEs altogether should explore low-toxin, nontoxic, or natural paints such as those made by Safecoat, Keim, Yolo, and many milk paint manufacturers. If you’re in doubt, check the paint’s material safety data sheet.

This article first appeared in the March-April 2011 issue of Utne Reader.

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