Are Water-Based Paints Toxic Too?


The toxicity of paint has lessened over the years as new varieties have been created. When I remodeled my home recently, I wanted to know exactly what the dangers were of the water-based paint I was going to be using. The information I found was very eye-opening and helpful, so I thought I’d share it as an easy reference for other concerned homeowners.

Are water-based paints toxic too? Water-based latex paints can cause irritation when contact with the skin occurs, as well as nausea or upset stomach if ingested. Overall, these types of paints do not poison the body or cause latex allergy reactions, as they do not include natural rubber latex. 

 Although water-based latex paints do not pose a deadly threat from contact or ingestion, many other risk factors exist due to the ingredients in these products. There are many things that need to be taken into account in order to accurately assess the health hazards imposed by the ingredients. Some of them are tricky to identify and others are downright scary.

Are Water-Based Paints Breathable?

Water-based paints can contain surprising amounts of VOCs (volatile organic compounds) that can pose serious health concerns when inhaled for long periods of time. Being able to identify the signs of overexposure is very important. The best way to keep yourself and your family safe is to become educated on what the specific signs of danger from your body are. Here is a general list of what those signs are:

  • Eye irritation
  • Sore throat
  • Nasal irritation
  • Nausea
  • Fatigue
  • Dizziness
  • Headache
  • Nose bleeds
  • Vomiting
  • Shortness of breath

It’s important to look out for any of these symptoms and take measures to correct them early on to avoid more serious side effects. Some of the more serious side effects can be debilitating and even life-threatening. But taking the time to stop at some of the earlier symptoms, you avoid having to deal with the more dangerous aspects, such as:

  • Loss of consciousness
  • Long-term damage to the nervous system
  • Liver damage
  • Kidney failure
  • Cancer

When you begin painting, it’s vitally important to maintain proper air ventilation. Be sure to keep windows open allowing fresh air into the workspace and use fans to keep the air circulating.  Although it is impossible to eliminate the risks of over-exposure, working to maintain a properly ventilated workspace will certainly reduce the likelihood of severe effects.

The above lists were compiled based on EPA findings regarding volatile organic compounds.

How Long Does Paint Emit VOCs Into the Air?

High volumes of VOCs are released into the air as the paint dries, but the emission does not stop at that point. On average, the levels of VOCs immediately after painting a room are 1,000 times higher than you would find outdoors – and that’s only if you used a low-level VOC paint.

Although the room is safely inhabitable after the first 24 hours, only 50% of the VOCs are released over the course of the first year. This means that even after a low-level VOC paint has dried, it continues to seep them out over the course of several years. However, even though they are still being released, at this point they are at safe levels. (find complete findings and more info here)

If you are using a paint that is free of VOCs, you still need to keep the area well ventilated for a while before the health risks are eliminated. In order for paint to dry properly and avoid peeling or bubbling, chemicals still must be used. Even after the paint has dried, it is important to keep windows open and proper air circulation going through your home for a week or so.

Unfortunately, experts have not yet definitively determined on record how long it takes for the unhealthy fumes to disappear completely, it has been agreed that a brand-new home, typically using a wide variety of VOC containing materials, still have what is considered toxic levels in them for several months after the completion of the home.

To be safe, it’s better to take more precautions than less overall. Assuming that you have been diligent in maintaining proper air ventilation throughout the process, it will be safe for both adults and children to sleep in a freshly painted room after 1 – 2 days of drying.

Should I Use Only Low or No Level VOC Paints?

As we have addressed earlier, even with the reduced VOC exposure, there are still chemical risks involved anytime you use household paint. Most of us get lost in trying to make sense of all the product levels. I’ve taken a look at the different types of paint and decided that even though I couldn’t conclude which option is the undisputed champion, I’ve at least learned enough to pass on for you to decide which would work for your personal situation.

Paints that claim a low-level VOC content are making a very general claim. It does, in fact, mean that they have reduced the use of these agents, therefore reducing the levels emitted into the air, but when they say low, the only comparison is other paints. As of today, there has been no standard on what an acceptable level of VOC content would be to use the ‘low-level’ claim.

Without an acceptable standard, there is no real way to know when shopping what the variance is from product to product. Consider how vague ‘less’ is. If you have 100 marbles, having less means a range of 99-0.

On the other hand, a no-level VOC paint means just that – no VOCs. That does not necessarily make the paint a safer option though, either. As established, chemicals need to be present in paint to insure it works correctly. Also, once you get into the tinting process, sometimes VOCs are added.

The best thing about using either of these varieties is that the heavy paint odor that circulates in your house is much less. These paints do prove to have less of an odor. Product development since the first appearance of these paints has greatly improved over time, making them comparable to regular household paint in application, texture and even drying time.

There have been a bunch of non-toxic, natural and even eco-friendly paints showing up at hardware stores recently as well. Just like anything else, it’s important to read the labels to make sure they don’t have any additional additives or harmful chemicals anyway.  Some new additions include milk paint, and pigments. These items get more expensive and labor-intensive.

With All These Options, Where Do We Draw the Line?

I’m sure if I kept researching, I would have found that there were an infinite number of marketing ploys out there meant to scaremonger you and guilt you into shelling out your life savings in the interest of keeping yourself and your family safe. This is where it becomes more of a judgment call than a matter of product research.

Take a trip to your local hardware store and ask someone in the paint department if they have any personal experience using the different varieties or valuable customer feedback. Perhaps you have a friend or family member who has recently done some home improvement projects that could offer some suggestions. It’s important to consider price and product longevity, after all, and who knows better than someone who has been there?

Lastly, consider what is most important to you. Make sure whatever you choose to go with works for your lifestyle. However important safety is, we can’t forget to be practical.

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