A Heavy Metal story

Is that paint you're going to coat the inside of your house with toxic? Better find out.

by Dan Morris
n 1989, there were 493 million gallons of paint (about 1.4 billion pounds) spread on the interior walls of the United States. Paints cover the largest square footage area of most homes and is therefore one of the most important material choices you can make.

For the first 67 years of this century, the favorite ingredient that made paint white and hard and durable was lead. In some cases up to 40 percent of the paint was lead. Lead was known to be toxic in the 1920s in Europe, but it worked so well and so few people were complaining that it continued in wide use until 1967, when it was finally banned from paints. But this is just one example of how long it takes for people to learn what the side effect of a product are and then do something about it.

The next great high-tech idea was to add mercury to water-based paints as a biocide to prevent molds and mildew from growing on your walls. Nice idea, bad solution. Mercury was used in interior and exterior paints for only forty years, when it was proven to have caused mercury poisoning in some children. The other effects mercury accumulation can have headaches, hair loss, nausea and trembling were not considered serious enough to limit its use in exterior paints. But in 1989, the EPA did ban the use of mercury in indoor paints.

Other heavy metals used in many paints include: cadmium, zinc, titanium, chromium, cooper, antimony and strontium chromate. These metals do not give off fumes, but when the paint is sanded or scraped, the dust can be inhaled, and can be distributed inside via normal traffic. None of these things belong spread around inside your living environment.

How can you find out what is in the paints and sealers on the shelves of most stores? You can't! There are over 600 chemicals used in paints in this country and manufacturers are not required to tell anyone what is in their paints. Material Safety Data Sheets only list the most toxic or known carcinogenic ingredients. Therefore, it is important to select paints and sealers that are known to be non- or low toxic.

There are now alternatives for just about every application. The best of the manufacturers will tell you everything that is in their paints. If the supplier can't or won't provide the information, find one who will. The prudent avoidance of toxic paints and stains is wise if you want your house to be healthy inside and out.

Excerpted from "A Guide to Planning, Building and Maintaining a Healthier Home" by Dan Morris. Contact: Columbia Design Group P.O. Box 16554, Portland OR 97216-0554 (800)446-8758