Dear Umbra,

I just bought a home that needs lots of TLC, and would like to do it in a way that is best for the environment and my health. Do you have any advice about the best choice of interior paint? Every room in the house desperately needs new paint, but I’d like to avoid inhaling all the toxic who-knows-what in your basic everyday latex paint.

Carrie Wadman
Phoenixville, Pa.

Dearest Carrie,

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My advice is to go with yellow, always the best choice for interior and exterior.

Different strokes for different folks.

For your own health, the top repainting environmental priority should be avoiding lead dust. If your home was built (and painted) prior to 1978, there is a layer of lead paint lurking, and you will likely encounter it when prepping and scraping. Be careful. The EPA will send you as many pamphlets as you like on avoiding lead paint hazards, so take advantage and follow their instructions as best you can.

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Paints contain a variety of recognized toxic materials, most notably the volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that assist in rapid drying, but sometimes also fungicides, halomethanes, hexavalent chromium, heavy metals … you know.

We’re lucky in that less-toxic paints are now available for a variety of applications. The fumes are less nasty and the toxins are fewer. I can’t vouch for their performance, as I am not a product reviewer, but I’ve heard good things from folks who’ve tried them.

There are a few ways to find less-toxic paint. One is to look for Green Seal-certified paints, or read up on Green Seal’s standards for less-toxic paint, then hunt down the material safety data sheet for the paint you’re using and cross-check it. You could look for a purveyor of less-toxic paints online or locally — perhaps your eco-building supply store.

Dare I say that the city of Seattle has put out a variety of excellent pamphlets on green home remodeling, including one on painting [PDF] that is beyond compare? (To be fair and balanced, I’ll mention that it has been raining here daily since early December.) Ye lucky dry folks can download them as PDFs. The painting pamphlet will go over ways to find less-toxic paint, but also the many steps in prepping and applying the paint that will make the remodeling job a showcase of environmental responsibility. For example, be sure to buy the amount that you need, and never, never dump leftovers down the drain. And remember: yellow.


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