The Path Forward for Paint
The Path Forward for Paint

The Path Forward for Paint

Sixty years after the introduction of latex, the quest for low-toxin paint continues to be the driving force behind paint manufacturers research and development efforts. In fact, those efforts are stronger than ever, thanks to growing demand for green coatings.

The goal: Reduce or eliminate harmful chemicals, in particular volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which evaporate under normal conditions, creating airborne gases that can cause short- and long-term health problems. "Today, it's all about green", says Steve Revnew, vice president of product development at Sherwin-Williams. The challenge is that customers want the newer paints to perform as well as, or better than, oil-based paints.

Water-based paints are inherently lower in VOCs than those with petroleum-based solvents. But Revnew says they can still include 25 to 30 volatile chemicals, including pigments, binders and additives that do everything from making the paint brush on surfaces easily to killing mildew. He says paint companies and raw-materials suppliers have been working to find nontoxic alternatives to these chemicals without sacrificing performance.

Reduce or eliminate harmful chemicals, in particular volatile organic compounds (VOCs)

The motivation for this activity comes from government and industry, as well as from homeowners. The EPA has named toxic indoor air one of the top U.S. health risks, with paint fumes as a prime culprit. Epidemiological studies in Sweden and New Zealand have found higher rates of certain cancers among professional painters. Because of this type of research, governments at all levels are mandating that paints have lower levels of VOCs.

Architects are also fueling the trend toward healthier paints. "Architects in the commercial market have been specifying green coatings for the last several years. Now we're seeing that carry over to residential", says Revnew.

Whether homeowners worry about chemical content depends on whom you ask. Tracy Fox, an interior designer in Portland, Oregon, says her clients are very concerned. "People concerned about their family's health are the real drivers right now, whether it be a child with asthma, a desire to live in a toxin-free environment or a deep concern about our environment." Even with tight budgets, she says, her customers continue to make health a priority. But they aren't willing to skimp on quality. "They expect high performance standards and an endless array of color choices," says Fox.

The EPA has named toxic indoor air one of the top U.S. health risks, with paint fumes as a prime culprit

Paint companies are trying to satisfy both expectations. Just a few examples:

  • Sherwin-Williams has reformulated its line of water-based exterior paints so they can be applied in air temperatures as cold as 35 degrees Fahrenheit. One of its water-based paints dries to a hard coat in just two hours.
  • Most of the familiar paint brands now offer or are planning to offer zero-VOC interior paints, such as Benjamin Moore's Natura®, ICI's The Freshaire Choice™ Paint and Sherwin-Williams Harmony®.
  • Atlanta-based Sto Corporation has introduced a self-cleaning paint that mimics the surface of a lotus leaf when dry, forming peaks and valleys designed to shed dirt and grime.
Advances in technology have led to new paint that dries quickly and is VOC-free

There is also hesitation regarding the new formulations among some painters, especially those who work in harsh environments. "I don't hear anyone asking for green paint", says Richard Conover, a painting contractor in Martha's Vineyard, Mass. His customers are demanding builders and owners of expensive summer homes, many of them located on the beach. "My customers are happy to use green paint on the inside, but they invariably tell me to use oil-based on the exterior."

Revnew dismisses such objections and insists that research shows today's top-quality acrylic latex formulas are longer-lasting, with better color retention, than oil-based paint, even in tough environments like the coast.

The point may be moot. California already limits VOCs to 50 grams per liter for all paints, compared with 100 to 150 grams per liter in most of the country. Revnew says other states are now following California's lead, especially in the Northeast and Midwest.

today's top-quality acrylic latex formulas are longer-lasting, with better color retention, than oil-based paint

It's the latest chapter in a long-term regulatory trend that most people in the industry believe will end with an outright ban on oil-based paints. Continuing high expectations from end users will only ratchet up the pace of change, for manufacturers and contractors alike.