A week before Halloween Angel Oakley’s husband brought black and red spray paint home from the hardware store for their six-year-old’s Minecraft costume. Even though her husband sprayed the costume on the deck, the fumes made Oakley sick.
“I got dizzy, lightheaded, and nauseous,” Oakley, a mother of three who lives in Chicago, Illinois, remembers. She opened all the windows, asked her husband to hang the costume in the garage to dry, and tried to sleep it off.
But any time she went near the costume, she felt sick all over again.
Like other conventional paints, spray paint contains a host of chemicals. Some of these chemicals become gasses at room temperature. These are called volatile organic compounds, often referred to as VOCs. That’s a mouthful—volatile organic compounds—and, unless you are an environmentalist, chemist, or toxicologist, chances are you have not thought about VOCs very much.
But even if paint fumes and other chemical smells do not make you noticeably sick, you still need to know about them.
Because the toxic paints in your home and the other indoor air pollution caused by off-gassing furniture and carpets may be slowly killing your family.
What are Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)?
These are substances that easily turn into gas or vapor at room temperature.
“Organic” in this case means that the compounds are part of the same organic chemistry that makes up your body, molecules consisting mainly of different arrangements of hydrogen and carbon.
Some VOCs are obviously recognizable: that overwhelming smell at the drycleaner’s when you pick up your dress shirts, the fumes coming from your car’s exhaust pipe, the sweet chemical smell of nail polish.
Other sources of VOCs may surprise you: your conventional shampoo , the ball-point pens you write with, the new mattress you bought for your toddler’s bed; that pair of Chinese-made plastic beach shoes.
And then there is the paint on the walls of your home.
Most paint contains a host of volatile organic compounds. As the paint dries it emits these chemical fumes into your home and into the air your family breaths. But even after the paint is dry, the volatile organic compounds in it may off-gas for months, or even years.
Lead in paint is gone, but what has replaced it?
Lead is a remarkably serviceable heavy metal that was once used in everything from beauty products to gasoline. (To this day, three countries still sell leaded gasoline.)
Lead was also used in both indoor and outdoor paints—added to decrease drying time and make the paint more waterproof. But in the 1970s researchers started realizing that exposure to this heavy metal could cause developmental delays, cognitive decline, and a host of health problems.
A growing body of scientific research now shows that babies exposed to too much lead—ingesting it from paint chips, lead-contaminated water, lead-containing children’s toys, and even from contaminated soil—show lasting signs of neurological damage.
Since the late 1970s, lead-based paint has not been sold in the United States. While a lot of older homes still have lead in them—including in the pipes, painted wood furniture, and painted walls—newer homes tend to be lead free.
When my daughter was a toddler we lived in a little red farmhouse in New England built in the 1870s. Nervous Nellie new parents, we were as vigilant as we could be to avoid exposing her to lead. We replaced the windows, bought organic compost for the garden, cleaned the house obsessively so she would not inadvertently be exposed to lead dust or paint chips. Despite our efforts, a blood test revealed she had a detectable amount of lead in her bloodstream.
Though high levels of lead in drinking water continues to make headline news in Michigan and across the United States, the good news is that parents are aware of this health risk to their children’s developing brains, there is public outcry to protect children from lead poisoning, and the federal government banned the use of lead in paint in 1978.
The bad news is that while no longer using lead, the conventional paint and building products used today contain dozens of newer chemicals and chemical combinations, many of which are not revealed to the consumer (proprietary ingredients, considered trade secrets by the government, do not have to be legally disclosed), and some of which are known to cause harm to human health.
Some VOCs cause cancer, endocrine disruption
Because there are so many VOCs and because some are more toxic—and have been tested more thoroughly—than others, you could study biochemistry for a year and still not fully understand how volatile organic compounds affect human health. But the toxicity coming from some VOCs is straightforward. A quick example is benzene. Almost all decorative glossy paints sold in the United States contain benzene, a colorless liquid that ranks in the top 20 chemicals produced in our country.
Benzene is also found in paint thinners, detergents, dyes, bug sprays, nylon and other synthetic fibers.
Benzene is a known carcinogen.
In the words of the World Health Organization, benzene “has been associated with a range of acute and long-term adverse health effects and diseases…”
This includes immune disruption, damage to the central nervous system, and damage to the body’s blood cells.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, benzene is also known to damage the DNA of babies in utero (“genotoxic” is the word they use).
The CDC states that there is “clear evidence of a causal relationship” between benzene exposure and leukemia.
Benzene is also highly volatile, evaporating into the air we breathe and creating indoor air pollution. When we inhale this chemical, it reacts to the molecules in our bodies, mimicking our naturally occurring hormones and disrupting our endocrine systems.
Indeed, like benzene, many VOCs are endocrine disruptors, even in relatively small amounts.
“A lot of chemicals we are exposed to mimic estrogen and other hormones,” explains Diane Hennacy Powell, M.D., a Johns Hopkins-trained psychiatrist with 30 years of experience. Powell has a particular interest in how toxic exposures affect the brain. “What they do is muck up our natural metabolic system,” Powell says. “They also alter our brain chemistry.”
Maybe it’s not time to paint the nursery
There is that heady rush of pleasure when those two red lines indicate pregnancy, especially when a couple has been trying to conceive for a long time. And what is one of the first things an expectant couple is encouraged to do? Buy baby furniture, pick out décor, and paint the nursery.
Just ask 49-year-old Kat Murphy. When she found out she was pregnant with a girl, this mom from Los Angeles, California delighted in choosing the perfect shabby chic baby furniture and rose pink paint for the nursery.
Murphy had new carpets installed (“really nice Berber,” she remembers) and she loved the way they smelled.
“Like new carpet,” she says with a sorry laugh now. “I thought it was so great. I had no clue.”
Murphy’s daughter Kayla was diagnosed with autism even before she turned two, which prompted Murphy to begin learning everything she could about the environmental exposures that may have contributed to harming her daughter’s brain.
A test ordered by the doctor revealed that Kayla had high levels of formaldehyde in her body, along with other toxins.
Formaldehyde, a known carcinogen and a main ingredient in many wood glues and finishes, is emitted from wood veneered furniture. Paint is another primary source of formaldehyde exposure.
Research sponsored by Women in Europe for a Common Future (WECF), an international non-profit organization dedicated to gender equality and a healthy environment, found that in 40 percent of the European homes (where health and environmental standards are often more stringent than in America), formaldehyde and other VOCs in children’s bedrooms exceeded accepted safety levels.
In addition to neurotoxic effects, exposure to VOCs has been associated with an array of other concerning health problems, including reduced kidney function, breathing difficulties and diminished lung capacity, and childhood asthma.
A study by researchers at Harvard published in PLOS One found that children were two to four times more likely to develop allergies and asthma if their bedrooms had fumes from paints or solvents, asserting that even “low concentrations at home raise concerns for the vulnerability of infants and young children.”
Other research, including this 2010 study conducted on rats, and this 2008 analysis done on humans, has found that VOCs can compromise liver function. The liver performs over 500 vital functions in the human body, including removing toxins from the blood and helping the body process nutrients. Compromised liver function can cause exhaustion, difficulties with digesting and absorbing nutrients, and brain damage, among other health problems.
“I don’t think there is any safe VOC.” –Denton Davis, M.D.
We understand that the amount of exposure to toxins, a person’s genetic vulnerability, and the body’s ability to detoxify all play a role in how much any given person will be affected by inhaling volatile organic compounds.
While there is continued debate about what levels of exposure to which chemicals—and for what duration—will measurably damage human health, researchers agree that developing babies in utero, newborns, and small children are often at the greatest risk.
According to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, which is part of the CDC, fetuses and infants are uniquely vulnerable to exposure to toxins and especially sensitive to the adverse effects of chemicals when the central nervous system is developing, and when the body’s organs are forming.
“The health of a human baby actually begins before birth,” explains Paul Thomas, M.D., a Dartmouth-trained pediatrician in private practice in Portland, Oregon. “It’s really important during pregnancy to do what you can to decrease exposure to any substances that might cause harm.”
Infants, too, are very vulnerable. As Sascha Gabizon, Executive Director of WECF, pointed out in a statement in 2010, since babies spend so much time asleep and 90 percent of their time indoors, they are subjected to the most exposure to chemicals that linger in the air.
How much exposure to VOCs is too much exposure to VOCs? The short answer is that we do not know. Different states have set different safety parameters (California’s limits tend to be the most stringent) but no federally enforceable standards have ever been set for safe levels of VOCs in the home, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
Denton Davis, M.D., a physician based in Pacific Beach, California who has been practicing medicine for 40 years, says no level of VOC exposure is beneficial. One of the founders of the American College of Emergency Physicians, Davis says medical doctors need to pay a lot more attention to the health problems caused by VOCs.
“I don’t think there is any safe VOC,” Davis says. “There is a spectrum—from irritants, like smelling ammonia, which will make your eyes will water—to heavy metals like lead, nickel, and phosphorus, which will actually kill you. But all of them are bad.”
Not just bad, but potentially lethal.
Davis believes that a tiny baby’s exposure to VOCs, especially the polyvinyl chloride used in plastic products and found in many baby mattresses and waterproof covers (as well as in inflatable mattresses, “rubber” duckies, and inflatable children’s toys), is contributing significantly to inexplicable infant deaths.
“Until you get rid of all the organic volatile compounds that are toxic, babies will continue to die without explanation,” Davis contends. “It all has to do with VOCs.”
Dizziness, nausea, lethargy, and blisters
While pregnant women and small children are perhaps the most susceptible to VOCs, these toxins are also harming teenagers and adults. Just ask Michelle Willadsen, a 44-year-old franchise owner who lives in La Grande, Oregon. When Willadsen’s daughter Taylor was 16 years old, she developed dizziness, nausea, lethargy, and blisters on her elbows.
Willadsen tells me that Taylor is very creative and loved remodeling and repainting her room. She painted it three times in three years. Like anyone else, Willadsen says, they used “regular paint.”
When doctors could not figure out what was causing Taylor’s litany of health problems, Willadsen started doing her own research. She found that the VOCs in their home were one factor contributing to her daughter’s illness.
Like Dr. Davis, Willadsen feels strongly that parents need to understand the health dangers posed by VOCs.
“It’s almost like feeding your baby a drug, it’s that damaging to their bodies,” Willadsen insists. “These chemicals are just dangerous.”
Canaries in the coal mine
The older she gets the more Deborah Maxwell, who is 51 and lives in Riverside, Illinois, realizes she needs to limit her exposure to VOCs.
As a young adult, when her father’s apartment building was being sprayed for cockroaches, Maxwell’s lungs were so affected that she ended up in the emergency room and spent three days in the hospital.
Then a few years ago she was working in an office where a remodel was going on across the hall. She noticed her throat constricting; she became light-headed, feeling almost high. She called her doctor who advised her to “get the hell out of the building.”
But her employer was skeptical.
No one else was reacting like she was.
Even though she couldn’t breathe (“It’s like trying to run around the block breathing from a straw,” Maxwell explains), her employer thought she was faking it. Her symptoms were so bad that Maxwell’s physicians asked her to find out what materials were being used in the remodel in order to avoid them in the future. But the company’s human resources department refused to give Maxwell any safety data sheets.
“I think they thought I wanted to sue them,” Maxwell says. “I was just hoping to get information to keep myself safe.”
So two years ago when her kitchen needed repainting, Maxwell explained to the painters she had hired that they needed to use zero VOC paint. The painters balked, telling Maxwell and her husband, who is a banker, that they had no experience with zero VOC paint and they were concerned it would not do a good enough job. The painters compromised with a low VOC alternative. To this day, Maxwell is sorry she gave in. Even though the kitchen was painted in May and they kept all the windows open for days, she still had a bad reaction.
“My doctor had to put me on steroids to get through it,” she says. “Next time we paint we’ll use a zero VOC.”
Maxwell says her 21-year-old daughter and her husband are not affected by VOCs the same way she is. But, she insists, just because other people aren’t having as severe or obvious physical reactions to the chemicals, that does not mean the VOCs are not causing them harm.
“I may get sick from being in a building and someone else doesn’t, but just like the miners who use the canaries in the coal mine to see if something is wrong, we should all be worried about it,” Maxwell says. “If one person gets sick, that should be a clarion call to all of us that something’s going wrong.”
How do you reduce exposure to VOCs?
Once they understood that indoor air pollution was contributing to their daughter’s brain dysfunction, Kat Murphy, the mom in Los Angeles, and her husband, who is a financial advisor, decided to buy a much smaller house so they could afford to remodel it in as non-toxic a way possible.
They used zero VOC glues for the flooring, installed organic cotton and wool rugs that contained no flame retardants or other harmful chemicals, and painted Kayla’s room—cornflower blue this time—with zero VOC paint. They also bought air purifiers that they run 24/7 to help filter volatile chemicals out of the air.
After they moved to their new home, Murphy noticed that Kayla—who is twelve years old now and still non-verbal—started sleeping better, having fewer allergies, and fewer episodes of rage. Kayla acts more present and is doing better in school, Murphy tells me.
Murphy is sure that reducing her daughter’s exposure to VOCs—along with reducing her toxic load in general (the family also credits lowering their exposure to electromagnetic fields by fixing faulty wiring, unplugging the house’s Wi-Fi at night, and other interventions)—has contributed to improving her daughter’s health.
“There’s so much toxicity everywhere,” Murphy says when I ask her if she has advice for people who want to lower their VOC exposure, especially pregnant women. “What you’re breathing in—the mattress you’re sleeping on, the paint in your home—your baby is going to get whatever you are getting. The toxic burden is coming from all directions and a lot of it is out of your control. But what you have in your home—what you’re breathing in every day—is really important. And that’s one thing you can control.”
Buyer beware of false advertising, incomplete labeling
But, as Deborah Maxwell found out the hard way, even low VOC paint can off-gas and make you sick.
When a paint is labeled “low VOC” that usually means that it has less than 50 grams of VOCs per liter of paint, at least according to this guide (with no federally accepted standards, these numbers are difficult to specify).
Fifty grams per liter is actually a substantial amount—nearly half a pound per gallon of paint. I’ll explain it this way: If my husband were to make me a liter of coffee, he would use approximately 25 grams of grounds, half the amount that is considered low in terms of VOCs. By current standards, the resulting coffee would be considered a “low coffee” drink.
If this sounds absurd to you, that is because it is. These VOC standards were initially introduced to reduce a substance’s contribution to outdoor smog, not to protect human health. They do not give consumers an honest or even a very helpful guide to how safe a paint product really is to breathe. The sad truth is that low VOC paint is often still chock full of off-gassing toxins.
In fact, one study found that VOC levels in the paint itself do not necessary correspond to the paint’s emissions—so a paint with low VOC levels can actually emit more toxins into the air than those with higher VOC content.
“These results demonstrate that low VOC content is not necessarily indicative of acceptable VOC emissions for specific compounds with known health impacts,” the study concludes.
As Joel Hirschberg, the owner and CEO of Green Building Supply, an Iowa-based eco-friendly building products supply store, explained in an article, “A product labeled with low or no VOCs does not mean it’s safe or good for your health — it simply means it does not promote pollution in the outdoor environment.”
Hirschberg points out, for example, that acetone and ammonia are both commonly found in paint and both cause harmful indoor emissions. These chemicals, however, are not considered VOCs by the EPA because they are not known to contribute to outdoor smog, even though they are still volatile organic compounds that can harm human health.
The problem is not limited to paints labeled “low VOC.” So-called “zero VOC” paints may also be off-gassing. Zero VOC paints typically have 5 grams of VOCs per liter or less. But five grams per liter is very far from zero.
There is another problem with putatively zero VOC paint. Some companies advertise VOC-free or zero VOC paint but then add paint pigments (for color) that have high VOCs.
I found this out the hard way too.
When I needed to paint my office, I chose a zero VOC paint from a large hardware chain that was recommended by the painter we hired. False advertising. The paint pigment contained so many VOCs that for a year and a half—despite keeping the windows open and running a fan—the walls in my office were still noticeably off-gassing, emitting a telltale new paint smell. According to this non-toxic paint guide, that is a common problem.
So how do you choose the safest paint?
The best way to protect your family is by choosing only zero VOC paints with zero VOC pigments added to them. But that is not enough—you also need to read the paint labels carefully, check on-line guides to see how the paints and other products are rated (Cradle2Cradle certification, the non-profit Environmental Working Group, and the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America all offer helpful resources). It is also helpful to double check on-line and with the store clerks to make sure there have not been consumer complaints about the paints off-gassing.
The best strategy is probably to choose paint that is made from natural products, as this paint is often the least toxic option.
You can also improve indoor air quality by using an air filter with a high HEPA rating, keeping windows open to let in fresh air and ensure good ventilation, and having as many indoor houseplants as possible, which will also help filter the air, according to the NASA Clean Air Study (a helpful list of houseplants and the toxins they filter can be found here).
Supporting your kidneys and liver—two organs responsible for filtering toxins out of the body—by eating a diet of real whole foods grown in uncontaminated soil without the use of pesticides, getting plenty of exercise, avoiding acetaminophen (which can greatly compromise liver function and has been linked to brain damage), staying well hydrated with filtered water, and supplementing with natural herbs like milk thistle, may also help.
When we repainted my daughters’ room, we chose Sherwin-Williams’ Harmony, a no VOC paint that was easy to use, did not noticeably off-gas, and was not astronomically priced.
Other non-toxic paints that have received high marks include:
1) ROMABIO mineral paint: ROMABIO paint is made with potassium silica and gets high marks from third-party certification programs. It is advertised as toxin-free, hypoallergenic, zero VOC, and asthma-free.
2) YOLO Colorhouse: On a mission to make the world “more colorful and less volatile,” YOLO Colorhouse offers paints advertised as free of VOCs, reproductive toxins, chemical solvents, and other toxic fumes. They provide downloadable data and product information sheets so you can check for yourself.
3) Old-Fashioned Milk Paint: The ingredients in this paint are milk protein, lime, clay, and earth pigments like ochre, umber, iron oxide, and lampblack. These paints are advertised to contain no lead, chemical preservatives, or fungicides, hydrocarbons or any other petroleum derivatives.
4) Real Milk Paint: Non-toxic and environmentally friendly milk-based paint which is advertised as free from harmful VOCs and biodegradable. The Real Milk Paint Co says it bases its recipes off traditional paints that used curdled milk and cottage cheese before the invention of petroleum products.
5) Anna Sova: Anna Sova sells luxury ecological paints are also based on milk. The company’s motto is that if it’s safe to eat, it’s safe to breathe.
Aaron Kase contributed reporting to this article.
Jennifer Margulis, Ph.D., is an award-winning science journalist and investigative reporter whose work has been published in the New York Times and the Washington Post, and featured on the cover of Smithsonian magazine. A Fulbright grantee, she has a bachelor’s degree from Cornell University, a master’s degree from the University of California at Berkeley, and a doctorate from Emory University. She is the author of Your Baby, Your Way: Taking Charge of Your Pregnancy, Childbirth, and Parenting Decisions for a Happier, Healthier Family (Scribner, 2015) and coauthor, with pediatrician and addiction specialist Dr. Paul Thomas, M.D., of The Vaccine-Friendly Plan: Dr. Paul’s Safe and Effective Approach to Immunity and Health—from Pregnancy Through Your Child’s Teen Years (Ballantine, 2016). Learn more at www.JenniferMargulis.net. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.