There is ever-increasing awareness of the chemicals we come into contact with every day, particularly if you or a member of your family has asthma or allergies. We created the asthma & allergy friendly® Certification Program to help you improve your indoor air environment by identifying products and services that can help to reduce allergens and create a healthier home environment.
Products like paint and cleaning sprays are – by their nature – composed of lots of different chemical compounds. But what is it that makes some paints better for the indoor environment than others, and where do we draw the line to decide to certify a paint as asthma & allergy friendly®? We hope that the questions below will clarify this. Let us know if you have more questions!
Why do we certify paints?
Our goal in the asthma & allergy friendly® Certification Program is to create a healthier indoor environment for you and your family, and so we look at all elements of the indoor air environment. Some of the chemicals in commonly used paints can cause allergic reactions, and many paints release fumes when they are applied.
We take a balanced approach in certifying products. It is not possible to make paint without using chemicals, and there are some chemicals which can have a negative effect but which are necessary for different reasons – more on that below. We want to identify paints that do not contain ingredients that are unnecessarily harmful. And we want to make sure that any necessary chemicals that can sometimes cause an allergic reaction are present at as low a level as is needed for them to function as intended.
What do we look for in paints?
We look at three things when we test paints.
The first is how many VOCs are emitted when the paint is applied. VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds) are chemical compounds that easily become vapours or gases. When you can smell paints, adhesives, cleaners, insect repellents, new furniture, printer fluid etc., these smells are caused by VOCs being released. We paint a sample surface with the paint and place it in an environmentally controlled chamber, where we can measure all of the VOCs released over 14 days. We record the levels after 24, 48, and 336 hours, to make sure that throughout this time period the levels remain low.
Why do we do VOC tests?
Exposure to VOCs can cause irritation of the eyes and respiratory tract, headaches, dizziness, and other side-effects. These can impact more on people with sensitive respiratory systems, such as people with asthma and certain allergies. We want to make sure that VOC emissions are as low as possible. However, if you are someone with asthma or nasal allergies, it would still be better for you to avoid painting a room yourself, or spending too much time in a room directly after painting.
The second is the paint’s performance – this means that we want paints to act like paint. When you paint them on the wall, they should stick to the wall properly, they should dry in a reasonable time, it should be possible to scrub them in a reasonable way without them breaking down, and it should be possible to clean a reasonable level of stain from them. There are standardised tests for all of these things, and we make sure that these have been passed for each paint that we certify.
Why do we look at paint performance?
As paint companies try to improve their paint by removing harmful chemicals and making sure they emit fewer VOCs, it is important that the paint still performs like a paint. Once the paint is dry, when you touch the wall no chemicals should transfer to your fingers. And you should be able to wipe off any stains without also removing the paint onto your cloth.
3. Constituent review
The third is the make-up of the paint. We do a detailed chemical assessment of all the constituents in the paint, and what concentration they are present at. There are many chemicals which are known to irritate skin and/or eyes or to which certain people can be particularly sensitive. But if they are present at a suitably low level and used correctly this is unlikely to cause problems.
Why do we do a constituent review?
We want to make sure that any potentially irritant or sensitising chemicals are present as a low enough level so that the probability of a reaction to them is as low as possible.
For example, water-based paints were developed to respond to consumer demand for healthier paints with lower VOCs, as compared to traditional solvent-based paint which have higher VOCs. But solvents in paint have a positive side-effect, in that they prevent mold and bacteria from growing in the paint or on the wall after it is painted. When the solvents were removed to make a healthier paint, it was necessary to introduce a preservative to stop this growth.
But there are very few presevatives currently available to paint companies to carry out this function. Most of the options fall into a chemical family called izothiozolinones, and are usually referred to by their initials; MIT, CMIT, and BIT are among the most commonly used in paints. This type of preservative is called a biocide. The problem with these biocides is that even at low concentrations, some people can have an allergic reaction to them. But when one paint company tried to remove them entirely from a new paint line, it ended up having to recall all of the paint it sold. Consumers had found that there was an ammonia-like smell in some rooms after painting and this was causing headaches and other physical effects. This was a result of bacteria that had grown in the paint can because the preservative had been removed.
So it goes back to the balance that we talked about earlier – in order that there are healthier paint choices available, there is a need for a preservative that will stop bacteria growth which itself could cause side-effects such as headaches and nasty smells. When we are assessing paint for the asthma & allergy friendly® Certification Program, we make sure that any preservatives/biocides are present at the lowest possible level at which they are effective. We are also keeping an active eye on research in this area, in the hope that a new preservative will be developed that will be effective but will not be considered as an allergen.
Why is there an allergy warning on some paints?
In some jurisdictions, there are regulations to make sure that if a chemical compound is present in a paint that has been demonstrated to cause an allergic reaction, the chemical and its allergenic status must be stated on the label. This is to protect consumers, and so that consumers who know they are sensitive to that chemical can avoid it where possible. The European Union (EU) has these kinds of regulations in place, and it requires an allergy warning for the biocides mentioned above. Because these biocides are necessary to keep the paint from hosting bacterial growth, you might see an allergy warning on a paint that has been certified asthma & allergy friendly®.
If you are in a country outside the EU, these biocides may be present in the paint without a warning on the label, because many countries do not require a warning.
But in any case, if a paint has been certified asthma & allergy friendly®, you will know that we have checked that any biocides are present at a low level, and that only the minimum amount required has been used.
Are there paints that are definitely safe?
Unfortunately, no. Given the variability between people, and the variety of sensitivities and allergic responses that different people can have, it is simply not possible to say that a paint is safe for everyone. In the same way, it is not possible to say that peanuts are safe for everyone, or that honey is safe for everyone, or that crossing the road at a pedestrian crossing is safe for everyone. But there are definitely some paints that create a better indoor environment than others, because they emit lower VOCs in your home over time, they perform well as paints, and because any potentially sensitising chemicals are present at a low level. However, if you have had a reaction to VOCs in the past or you know that you are sensitive to some of the chemicals that are in paint, you should take sensible precautions. Avoid doing any painting yourself, or if you must paint make sure you are wearing suitable protective clothing and gloves, and that the area is well-ventilated.
What else do we certify?
We have 46 different asthma & allergy friendly® certification standards for products and services, addressing all areas of the indoor air environment. Some of these relate to products which remove allergens and dust from the indoor environment, like vacuum cleaners, air cleaners, dehumidifiers, and washing machines. Some of them relate to products where it is important not to provide an easy home for allergens and that it is possible to remove allergen from them – like bedding and toys. And some of them relate to household products that should make as little an impact on the indoor environment as possible – like paint.
You can find out which products are certified asthma & allergy friendly® and read more by clicking here.
Note: This is a summary of our paint standard which was written for those without a scientific background. For more detailed information, please see the abstract of our standard, our recent policy statement on biocides, or contact us for more information.
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