Greener Homes and Gardens: The Non-Toxic Rainbow

Many of us are familiar with the term “sick building syndrome.” The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) website ( uses the term to describe situations in which building occupants experience acute health effects and discomfort that are directly linked to time spent indoors those buildings.

As early as 1984, a World Health Organization Committee report suggested that up to 30% of new and remodeled buildings worldwide may be linked to complaints related to indoor air quality.

The majority of these problems can be attributed to the materials used inside the building. The list includes adhesives, carpeting, upholstery, manufactured wood products, copy machines, pesticides, and cleaning agents that may emit volatile organic compounds (VOC), including formaldehyde. VOCs are a large family of carbon-containing compounds which are emitted or evaporate into the atmosphere where they participate in photochemical reactions. Some VOCs are said to contribute to stratosphere ozone depletion, while others are toxic and/or carcinogenic.

Simple choices that we make can have a significant impact on our long term health. One commonly purchased item which does not receive much thought about its long term impact is paint. We expect a lot from the paint we use inside and out of our homes such as to be weatherproof, long lasting and to enhance our living space. In the past, these requirements resulted in toxic, long-lived chemicals being used in paint. Many of us are familiar with the problems of lead paint, and there was a time that asbestos was a paint ingredient along with PCBs and DDT.

Today, a host of other problem ingredients have been added to our rainbow redecorating palette:


  • chromium
  • cadmium
  • mercury
  • tin
  • arsenic
  • radium

Paints and finishes can release low level toxic emissions from these ingredients into the air for years after application. The source of these toxins is a variety of VOCs which, until recently, were essential to the performance of the paint.

Toxic hazards mainly impact the human body either by affecting the respiratory system, the eyes and/or the skin. With paint, the respiratory system is the primary route for exposure. Paints frequently contain skin-degrading solvents, as well as a variety of pigments and miscellaneous additives. Human skin can not provide an effective barrier to prevent the passage of these toxic substances into the body. Propane sulfone, widely used as a paint base, has been identified as being a powerful carcinogen and can cause cancer with skin contact.

The Northwest Builders Network ( web page reminds us that the Environmental Protection Agency is mandated to watchdog all toxic ingredients within products. A product that has an EPA registration number means that it contains toxic ingredients that require monitoring. When a product is required to register with the EPA, it does not mean it is safe to use. Products are registered with the EPA because they contain toxic ingredients. A great way to make sure that you are using a product that is safe both for the environment and you is to seek out products that are not registered with the EPA. These products have no need for regulation since they contain benign ingredients which are not harmful to the atmosphere, earth or user.

If you are remodeling an older home, some attention should be given to determining what types of paint were previously used. You do not necessarily need to be concerned if the paint is undamaged since the chemicals should be contained. It is when paint starts to crumble or chip that the potential for exposure increases. Children, infants and fetuses are the most at risk because the toxic metals are easily absorbed into growing bodies. If you are rehabbing an old space, you may want to have a professional determine what materials are present in your home. Up until the 1950s, paint could be as much as 50% lead; other toxic chemicals were legal well into the 1990’s, and some are still being used today.

Development of low- and zero-VOC paint and finishes has been fueled by consumer demand and regulations. There are many small, specialty paint companies providing safe products, and the large paint manufacturers have been adding non-VOC paint to their offerings. These new paints are still durable while being cost effective and less harmful to humans and the environment.

Painting Tips

  • Milk paint and natural paints are the first choice when it comes to commercially available interior paints. Milk paint is made with milk protein (casein) and lime. Natural paints are derived from substances such as citrus and balsam, as well as various minerals. Both milk and natural paints are petroleum-free, very low in VOCs, and do not off-gas biocides.
  • Avoid oil- or solvent-based paints, as they contain the highest levels of VOCs.
  • No matter what kind of paint you use, remember to keep your home well ventilated while the new paint dries.
  • Paints with the word “hue” at the end of their name are actually substitutes for the original, and are usually non-toxic. For example, Cadmium Yellow Hue contains no actual Cadmium Yellow, but is usually a blend of the non-toxic Arylide Yellow G and Arylide Yellow 10G.

Milk paint is available commercially but for the adventurous redecorator, replicating old-fashioned milk paint can be done at home. A search on the Internet produces a slew of recipes varying from complicated to the simple or try these below.

Basic Lime and Milk Paint Recipe

Measuring either by weight or volume mix in one part lime to twelve parts skim milk. (If you have your own cow just skim off the cream!) Add pigment (more on this below) until desired color is achieved. Use a sieve, or for best results, use cheesecloth to remove lumps.

Lime, Milk and Plaster of Paris Paint Recipe

  • 1 1/2 cup skim milk
  • 30 grams lime
  • 240 grams plaster of Paris
  • Pigment

Mix skim milk with lime, stirring briskly until the lime is completely mixed in. Add plaster of Paris and pigment until desired color is achieved. Allow the mixture to sit for an hour or until it stops bubbling. While painting stir regularly to prevent settling. Clean up consists of a little soap and water and can be poured onto the garden (but don’t add too much lime to one area.)


Pigment or color choices offer a wide area for experimentation in creating the colors you want. A nice rust shade is easy to achieve at home from steel wool or iron filings. Berries can be used but make good use of that cheesecloth to remove seeds. Burnt potatoes can be ground up for black paint, earth tones can be achieved using — well, dirt! If you desire more consistency you can use any sort of water soluble powdered dye available at art stores. RIT and other inexpensive dyes can be found in drugstores, hardware and craft stores. You’ll need to experiment first with the color to achieve the effect that you desire.

The Size is Right

Another issue the paint industry is beginning to address is the size of the containers paint is sold in. How often have you been faced with the choice of spending too much money for two quarts or over-buying a gallon of paint? The amount of paint disposed of at municipal household hazardous waste collections show how many of us have been forced to buy in a quantity larger than we need. The Minnesota Office of Environmental Assistance is one of the agencies lobbying paint manufacturers to enable consumers to buy just the amount of paint needed at a more reasonable cost, and to encourage the recycling of leftover paint into a new, useable product. Some towns have set up paint swaps. While this does not address the potential toxic ingredients, it does reduce the amount of waste being produced. Be sure that you can read the label and that you are getting a paint manufactured within the last few years.

Where we choose to spend our money reflects the values we hold. While the cost of “green” alternatives may have higher up-front costs, the long term benefits provide a more lasting reward. A reduction in everyday health symptoms like headaches and sinus problems, plus a lower exposure to the more serious disease risks such as cancer is achieved with minimizing your and your family’s exposure to toxic substances. Since paints and stains are so widely used in both our homes and work environments, choosing non-toxic, environmentally safe products can greatly reduce the amount of toxins in the air, water and earth.

Mary Farrell is a writer, environmentalist, dowser, student of herbalism and teaches self empowerment tools. She can be reached at