If you’re decorating your new baby’s nursery, safety should be your primary concern. Unfortunately, when it comes to choosing the right paint for the room, it can get very confusing. You’re probably wondering, “If I paint my baby’s room, will he or she be safe?”
The biggest health concern with paints are volatile organic compounds, or VOCs. These substances are highly reactive and can be released into the air over time in a process known as off gassing. Some commonly used VOCs in paint are formaldehyde, xylene, ethyl acetate, methylene chloride, glycol, among many others.
Not only do VOCs cause poor air quality in one’s home, but they have been shown to cause many adverse health effects like eye, nose, and throat irritation, nausea, headache, dizziness and disorientation. And with long-term exposure, VOCs can cause asthma and skin conditions in the future, and even cancer.
Studies have found that occupational exposure to paints in painters increases the risk of various cancers like lung cancer and bladder cancer, to name a few. But the risk doesn’t only stop with professional painters. Pregnant women exposed to paint fumes during their first trimester had births yielding in higher birth defects. Neurological birth defects were particularly alarming, where the study found a birth defect rate that was as much as double compared to pregnant women who weren’t exposed to paint fumes at all.
What’s Inside Latex Paint?
Paint is dangerous in part because of the VOCs and other chemicals in it, but it’s also dangerous because consumers aren’t being fully informed by most paint manufacturers about the paints they’re putting on their walls.
To better understand these issues, we have to first know that most paints can be broken up into three primary components – binders, solvents and pigments.
Latex paint uses water as the solvent. While it might be better than the paint thinners and other thinning chemicals found in the oily paints, it still doesn’t mean that latex paint is as safe as it needs to be. Although the industry has improved drastically from the old days of lead paint, many of the VOCs can still lurk in solvents nowadays.
Binders create the viscous consistency needed for the paint to stay on the roller, which is in this case mostly latex rubber. In many cases, latex can be toxic and cause allergic reactions.
The paint is then injected with a pigment. Most paints on the hardware store shelves are white, so they must contain a significant amount of titanium dioxide to create the white base of the paint. Of course, you’d then ask for another pigment to be injected at the counter to get the exact color from the paint chip. VOCs can also be found in pigments.
How Is Paint Regulated?
Paint manufacturers are required to provide a safety data sheet (SDS) to its customers. The SDS in part must identify chemicals that have been identified to be potential hazards. But when reading these documents (take this example for the Behr Premium Plus Ultra line of paints), one quickly notices just how vague the information is.
The composition for each chemical is listed a wide range in percentages. This is in part because of batch variations, but how could one explain the listing for titanium dioxide that’s listed as being somewhere between 10% and 30%? The reason why companies do this is to protect their specific formulas from being copied by competitors. While it helps them, this doesn’t help the consumer very much.
Not only is this large variation a problem, but the SDS only lists the ingredients that are required to be listed. This is basically saying that anything else in the paint bucket isn’t required to be disclosed, so the manufacturer chooses not to do so. Again, this might be good to protect their proprietary formula, but it isn’t very comforting when you’re concerned with your child’s health and safety.
This lack of information isn’t specific to any one manufacturer or product, it’s a widely accepted standard and it’s perfectly legal. To be fair, the manufacturers are meeting the testing requirements, otherwise their products wouldn’t be sitting on the shelves.
But that’s of course never the whole story.
The Problem with Zero VOC Paints
You’ve probably seen paints labeled as low odors, zero VOCs. You might be thinking, “Great, this solves everything!”
The problem is that VOCs can be defined differently depending on the test of choice. From a business perspective, most manufacturers prefer to use a narrow definition for VOCs that focuses more on smog than indoor air pollutants. Unfortunately, this is all thanks to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) creating some confusion with the terminology in recent years.
The Right and Wrong Certifications to Look for in Paint
There are many claims that you may see on a bucket of paint, but they’re not all created equal. Let’s look into some tests and certifications that paint manufacturers use and what they really mean.
EPA’s Method 24 Test
All interior paints are subject to a test administered by the EPA known as the Method 24 test. It tests the VOC levels, and if the levels are 5g/l or below, paint companies are allowed to use a zero VOC label.
Besides this obvious misrepresentation of what “zero” means, the EPA Method 24 test is notoriously unreliable. Even the EPA itself admits it! When the test was repeated in a study, the measurements had an average range of error of 8%. And the lower the VOC content in the paint was, the greater the error became.
A Declare Label
Administered by the International Living Future Institute (ILFI), a declare label is a way for manufacturers to go above the minimum legal requirements and disclose every single ingredient in a product. Paint manufacturers that show this label want to be transparent and
Health Product Declarations (HPDs)
Although similar to an SDS, a health product declaration (HPD) goes a step above. First, it must be verified by a third party. And second, it must be a full disclosure of all ingredients. This means that manufacturers can’t just disclose the information of the base paint, but must also include information once the final pigment is added (which oftentimes can contain additional VOCs).
California CDPH Standard Method Section 01350
Even though the US does have regulations for paint on a federal level, states have their own regulations as well. California is known to be the most stringent state when it comes to paint regulations. Look for paint manufacturers who follow the California CDPH 01350 regulation.
This test matters because it doesn’t only test the initial VOC content in the paint. It looks at the actual VOC emissions, which are typically tested after 14 days of applying the paint. This is a good way to project how the VOCs might be released over the long term, rather than just the first day when the room is freshly painted.
What’s the Best Paint for My Baby, Then?
Hopefully you know by now that all zero VOC labels aren’t created equally. If you still don’t believe, take a look at this recent FTC settlement that the major paint companies had to agree to because of their misleading advertisements.
Although Imperial Paints, LLC is implied in this settlement for making the hyperbolic claim of being the world’s safest paint for babies, their products are still my recommendation. Imperial Paints, LLC owns Ecos and Lullaby, two paint companies that follow all of the tests and certifications outlined above. The two lines I recommend are:
The ingredients of these paints are fully disclosed with a declare label and HPD. Not only is their method 24 test a negative number result due to no VOCs, the paints also pass the CDPH emissions test for VOC emissions.
Both paints are video reviewed by many customers. The companies also understands their challenge of not having a local presence in paint stores, but they make up for this by offering a color-matching service and reasonable shipping.
I was expecting these paints to be mostly used by parents for their baby’s nursery, but the paints are well-received by those who have multiple chemical sensitivities, allergies, weak immune systems and generally weak health.
I encourage you to investigate Ecos and Lullaby as they seem to offer the best and most feasible solution for safe paint in a nursery.
Whichever paint you decide to use for your baby’s room, I encourage you to follow some common sense tips when painting. If you’re pregnant, avoid paint fumes during your first trimester. Let the paint dry for 2 to 3 days first before bringing the baby into the room. Keep the room ventilated on a regular basis and keep the temperature under control.
Use a safe method to keep purifying the air so that any off gassing VOCs can be absorbed as the baby lives in the room. My recommendation is to use a charcoal purifying bag, just make sure to keep it out of baby’s reach.