I think it is safe to say that the first step to a safe home is to use materials that have no chemicals, known toxins, or other harmful ingredients. Fresh, clean indoor air is vital to a fresh, clean existence. And when you are considering your life in less than 300 square feet this principal could not be anymore true.

Two evenings ago Crystal and I decided to get started choosing some interior stain for our ceiling. We know we are going to use 2″ pine tongue & groove but we know we don’t want to leave it untreated. We went through several stains sitting here already. We tried Pecan, Deep Mahogany, Ginger, and even Red Oak. But as the smell permeated the air we were quickly reminded that we needed to spend more time researching the effects of using stain within our tiny house.

Similarly there are always aesthetics to consider and most times that involved a fresh coat of paint, or a smathering of stain. Unfortunately, there are traditionally serious health hazards posed by this kind of project. A 2002 study by the National Cancer Institute found that men and women working in the painting trades had a “significantly increased” risk of cancer, a result that indicates that paints may be dangerous to your health, your family, and the environment. Since wood stains contain many of the same chemicals found in paint, it is not – as some say – a better option!

And as for redecorating? Even if your furniture looks like a piece of prop furniture from a bad ’70s movie and your walls are adorned with grimy handprints and indeterminable smudges, it’s worth standing firm in your resolve to have clean air for your family. Luckily, attractive, simple-to-use nontoxic paints and stains are easier to find than ever before.

First, the facts:

The problem with most commonly available paints lies in their ingredient list, including:

  • VOCs – Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are emitted as gases from certain solids or liquids. VOCs include a variety of chemicals, some of which may have short- and long-term adverse health effects. Concentrations of many VOCs are consistently higher indoors (up to ten times higher) than outdoors. VOCs are emitted by a wide array of products numbering in the thousands. Examples include: paints and lacquers, paint strippers, cleaning supplies, pesticides, building materials and furnishings, office equipment such as copiers and printers, correction fluids and carbonless copy paper, graphics and craft materials including glues and adhesives, permanent markers, and photographic solutions. 1
  • Fungicides and biocides – Paints also contain toxic fungicides to prevent mildew growth, and biocides, which are used as preservatives to extend the full shelf life. Toxic biocides can be detected in the air five years after the paint containing the chemicals is applied. Like VOCs, fungicides and biocides contaminate both indoor and outdoor air. If paint is not disposed of properly, they can also seep into groundwater.
  • Pigments – a material that changes the color of reflected or transmitted light as the result of wavelength-selective absorption. This physical process differs from fluorescence, phosphorescence, and other forms of luminescence, in which a material emits light. 2

What now?

Ideally, you’ll want to use paints that meet all three better health requirements: low VOCs,
low biocides, and natural pigments. It is important to note that a number of paints labeled “low-VOC” simply meet the Environmental Protection Agency’s minimum requirements which call for no more than 250 grams per liter (gm/l) of VOCs in “low-VOC” latex paints and no more than 380 gm/l for “low-VOC” oil-based paints. There are paints available with even lower VOC levels (0-100 gm/l). To find the VOC level, check the paint can label, or call the company and ask for a material safety data sheet.

As for exterior -vs- interior you’ll need to tailor your eco-requirements as follows:

All exterior paints have fungicides, and low-biocide paints are not available for exteriors. The best choice for an exterior paint is one that has zinc oxide as the fungicide. I personally recommend AFM SafeCoat, Zero VOC, Custom Color Paint sold by Green Building Supply. Next best choices are zero- to very low-VOC paints, acrylic or latex paints, and recycled water-based paint. Avoid oil-based paints because of their high VOC content, as well as paint from old cans that may contain mercury or lead.

When it comes to interior paints I think Milk paint and natural paints are the first choice in regards to commercially available interior paint. Natural paints are derived from substances such as citrus and balsam, as well as minerals. Although these paints are made with natural materials and are petroleum-free, they often contain terpenes, which are VOCs derived from plants. However, natural paints do not off-gas biocides and fungicides. Check out Old Fashioned Milk Paint in 20 classic colors!

Milk paint, which is made with milk protein (called “casein”) and lime, was the interior paint of choice in Colonial America. Milk paint is excellent for interiors and also gives wood a rich, deep color, allowing the grain to show through.

In regards to stains one must remember that stains can contain unusually high levels of biocides, fungicides, and VOCs, which pose the same problems outlined in the paint sections above. Paint is preferable to stain due to the higher levels of pesticides in stain.

To avoid polluting your interior air (as well as your outdoor environment), use water-based stains and sealants without biocides and added dryers, or those made with beeswax or carnauba wax. In fact, check out the Weather-Bos. And remember, darker stains and sealants tend to be less toxic.

In what ways are you keeping your air clean? Have you used eco-friendly paints and stains? Are you planning to? If so, what company/brand? We’re always looking to share a good conversation!



1 http://www.epa.gov/iaq/voc.html
2 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pigment