Paints and coatings can have significant impacts on the environment and human health, depending on what ingredients and components they contain. Here are some of the key things to know about when you’re on the hunt for environmentally-preferable paints and coatings.
Paint is made from three basic ingredients: pigment, binder and solvent. In addition to these, it can contain a variety of additives, including biocides (to prevent bacteria or fungal growth in the can or on the painted surface). Each of these ingredients can have an impact on the environment during the life cycle of the paint.
The solvent can be thought of as the carrier. It evaporates as the paint dries on the surface. If a paint uses organic solvents rather than a water base, it will release volatile organic compounds (VOCs) into the surrounding air. Solvent-based paints can also contain about 50 percent more embodied energy.
VOCs are detrimental to indoor air quality, and their minimisation is one way to achieve possible Green Star credits. Exposure to VOCs can trigger headaches; irritation to eyes, nose and throat; damage to the liver, kidneys and central nervous systems; and loss of coordination. They’re also suspected to cause cancer in humans and have been associated with “sick building syndrome”, according to The Fifth Estate.
Pigments provide the colour, the opacity and the protective barrier in the paint. Titanium dioxide is used widely in the paint industry for this purpose. Unlike the organic solvents, its major environmental impact is in its manufacture. It has high embodied energy, is a limited resource and its production results in both air and water emissions that carry an environmental impact.
The other components of paints can contain ingredients that are toxic to those producing the paint and those applying it. Many chemicals are used as biocides, and these are necessary.
GECA-certified exterior and interior paints and coatings do not contain carcinogenic or mutagenic chemicals, and there are limits placed on the amount of titanium dioxide used. GECA only certifies water-based paints with low VOC content. Those certified under the Paints and Coatings standard meet the requirements of the VOC credit under indoor environment quality as part of Green Star. Our standard has also been recognised by the WELL Building Standard in its low VOC reduction criterion.