16 February 2012 – Brisbane’s Mater Hospital is an example of the benefits of using water based paints with no volatile organic compounds – wards stayed open, odours didn’t linger, and it was safe for asthma sufferers, the pregnant and children.
A spokeswoman for the hospital told The Fifth Estate, “The problem we found with using conventional paints was the smell that lingered in the air while painting; the smell from paint without VOCs dissipates after about 5-10 minutes”.
The hospital first used paint from the Byron Bay, NSW company ecolour in one of the hospital’s child care buildings, then in the mothers’ hospital and finally in all patient/staff areas across the complex.
Business development and market research manager of ecolour Simon Winfield says the Mater Hospital had been looking for a paint product that would reduce disruption, limit staff complaints, and improve asset utilisation in the five hospitals onsite.
Previous painting at Mater would require the closure of half a floor for 3-4 weeks, and be part of a refurbishment including electrical overhaul.
Complaints were received on a daily basis, making the painter’s jobs difficult, and suggesting that staff reacted strongly to even low VOC paints, with a likely consequent an increase in sick leave.
According to Winfield research suggests that VOCs trigger a significant increase in asthma, bronchitis and sinusitis in adults and children.
They have also been linked to cancer in painters and with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and autistic spectrum disorder.
The young, pregnant, aged, or those with compromised health, heightened sensitivity or intellectual disability, as well as individuals experiencing occupational exposure were especially vulnerable to environmental contaminants, he says.
Children are up to six times more vulnerable due to their higher metabolic rate and significantly higher air intake compared to an adult.
VOCs are fat soluble and can remain in the body for several years after exposure.
Doctors, toxicologists, councils, state and federal governments have advised absolute minimisation of VOCs in the indoor environment, he said.
The largest markets should be all health care, all education, all childcare, all age care.
See the list of sources on the links between paint and cancer at the end of this article.
Victoria was probably the most forward thinking in terms of sustainability, uptake and understanding of issues, Winfield adds.
Winfield was alerted to the potential of hazardous paints after living in a house in Scotland. His son, now eight, was 15 months old at the time the family rented the house in Edinburgh.
“He started having asthma attacks shortly after we moved in, “Winfield says.
“The house wasn’t new, but had been repainted and remodelled ready to rent out and contained many square metres of medium density fibreboard, or MDF new carpets and new paint, which are all understood to emit VOC
“The doctors did the pin prick test on his arm, where they analyse allergic reactions to various potential triggers such as bird feathers, eggs, dairy, etcetera
“None of these showed a positive reaction. The dog could have been to blame, but it was also living in the house where my son Finlay experienced no asthma attacks. It could also have been dust mites in the carpet or damp or pollution from passing traffic.”.
But when the family moved house a year later to a drier part of Scotland his son’s symptoms disappeared – the new house had no carpets, and no MDF.
Still, Winfield says he only realised the potential influence of hazardous chemicals in indoor air when he took a course on facilities management at Bond University, Queensland. This was reinforced when he met Daniel Wurm who runs Greenpainters
Education for painters
Greenpainters, on Queensland’s Gold Coast, is a national non-profit certification program providing training, consumer information and skills to promote environmentally preferable coatings technology.
Some 350 painters have completed an Australia-wide course funded by Sustainability Victoria. Wurm created the 22002vic course in sustainable painting practices with Holmesglen TAFE, Victoria
- See Greenpainters
“Using non-toxic paints means that when it comes time to wash-up, the run-off won’t spoil the garden, or pollute storm-water, which is ultimately better for the environment, “Wurm says.
“In fact, any waste water used when cleaning up after using natural paints can be used to water your garden.”
A priority for Wurm is persuading the federal government to bring out a standard for heat reflective paint codings.
To this end he has been working with Solar Cities Program and Good Environmental Choice and hopes a new coding system will come out within the next six months.
“With heat reflective codings we have the capacity to cut carbon emissions by thousands of tonnes a year, “ he says
“They are used in Japan, the Philippines, all through the Middle East, and in California, US.
“When we ask why can’t we do what’s happening overseas, we are told, tests have to be done in Australia. Only two companies have met the criteria so far.”
Simon Vandestadt, business manager for Dulux’s Acratex Roof Coatings, told The Fifth Estate Dulux Acratex had been selling heat reflective roof paint in the Australian market for about 10 years.
“More recently we have developed the Cool Roof range with InfraCOOL technology to meet the growing demand for a simple system with high total solar reflectance), lower sheen and low dirt pick-up, that can be airless sprayed onto broad flat metal roofs,” Vandestadt says.
“We have also applied the InfraCOOL technology to a wide range of popular roofing colours so they deliver higher total solar reflectance than normal paint with the same colour. In 2011 we trained over 400 specialist roof painters in the features and benefits of the Cool Roof product and how to communicate these benefits to customers.
“We have seen an enormous growth in interest in Cool Roof products as building owners and tenants look for simple, cost effective ways to improve occupant comfort, reduce the energy costs associated with cooling buildings and lower carbon footprints.
“With residential energy costs set to increase, home owners are also seeing Cool Roofs as a smart way to protect and enhance their house while also reducing their energy bills.
“Cool Roofs have been a major environmental initiative in the US for a number of years and strongly supported by the US Energy Department.
“Now we are seeing environmental leaders like the City of Melbourne get behind Cool Roofs. The Mayor of the City of Melbourne, Robert Doyle, recently launched a study by Melbourne University on the benefits of Cool Roofs and recognised Cool Roofs as an important component of the city’s plan to become carbon neutral by 2020,” Vandestadt says.
Benefits of using a zero VOC paint including in schools
Nearly all paints contain VOC’s. These hazardous petroleum based solvents are added as a curing and levelling agent, and as a preservative to prolong shelf-life. VOCs evaporate from painted surfaces for months and years after application.
Asthma attacks in children ages 1-14 are three to four times greater in February than in January (NSW Health). Most schools repaint over the summer holidays. It is believed that a significant proportion of the increase in asthma attacks is due to the poor Indoor air quality experienced when children return to school.
VOCs have also been linked to deteriorating performance, impaired memory, and the ability to concentrate. The Council of Educational Facility Planners and the US Environment Protection Agency have shown a five per cent improvement in student test scores through improving Indoor air quality.
Is low VOC good enough?
Children are up to six times more susceptible to environmental contaminants than adults due to their higher metabolic rate and significantly higher air exchange.
The Department of Health and Ageing, the Department of Environment, as well as doctors and toxicologists all recommend minimising or eliminating VOCs in the indoor environment. Some state education departments specify paints containing minimal VOCs due to the heightened health risk to students of even low VOC paints.
A study by Smede et al (1997) suggested that the indoor air quality (including VOCs and formaldehyde) of the school environment was important and could affect asthmatic symptoms.
The study also concluded that exposure to indoor pollutants, including VOCs, affected perception, even at the low concentrations normally found indoors in nonindustrial buildings.
Other authors have inferred that the ability to learn is reduced during exposure and concluded that VOCs may affect sensory responses, eye physiology and performance (Kjaergaard et al 1990)
See a brief list of sources for information on the links between conventional paints and cancer and indoor air quality:
- Cancer Council Australia
- US Environment Protection Agency
- “Respiratory or allergic effects in infants or children increase by a factor of 5.6 in painting” – Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Berkeley, CA, USA
- “Children exposed to total VOCs at levels of 60 g/m3 (microgram per cubic metre) or greater are four times more likely to have asthma than those who were not exposed to such levels” – Rumchev et al, School of Public Health, Curtin University of Technology, Perth, WA. [Occupational guidelines in Australia are 500 g/m3]. See https://thorax.bmj.com/content/59/9/746.full
- “Prenatal exposure to organic solvents is associated with behavioural problems in children” – University of Toronto, Ontario, Canada https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11418265
- “Improved indoor air quality shows productivity increases ranging from 0.5 per cent to 11 per cent” – Jones Lang LaSalle Global Sustainability Perspective 2010