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Opt for an olfactory-pleasing painting experience

By: Cari DeLamielleure-Scott | West Bloomfield Beacon | Published August 10, 2016

METRO DETROIT — A splash of color can give a room a fresh look. 

But before you rush to the checkout line with your bucket of paint, experts suggest reviewing the labels for volatile organic compounds, especially if you suffer from allergies or asthma.   

Some, but not all, paints contain volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, which are compounds that contain high vapor pressure and low water solubility, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Many VOCs are man-made chemicals, and they are emitted as gases from certain products. 

While some are harmful by themselves, some can react with other gases and create additional air pollutants. Indoor sources of VOCs include, but are not limited to, tobacco smoke, paint, paint remover, cleaning products, varnishes, hobby products, air fresheners and pesticides, according to the American Lung Association. Types of familiar VOCs include benzene, formaldehyde and toluene. 

VOCs can exacerbate wheezing, bronchospasms and mucus production in patients who “are already brittle with respiratory function,” said Dr. Christian Nageotte, program director for the allergy and immunology fellowship with Henry Ford Health System. 

In addition, the compounds can cause watery eyes, congestion of the nose and headaches. Some VOCs can cause difficulty breathing, nausea, and damage to the central nervous system and other organs. Formaldehyde, for example, is a carcinogen, said Janice Nolen, assistant vice president for national policy of the American Lung Association. 

“We always recommend people look for products that are low VOCs,” said Nolen. “We know that many of these VOCs can irritate people’s breathing systems.” 

For years, people have known that these VOCs, which Nageotte said give paint its smell, are not good for a person’s health. Floor finishing materials and sealers for grout also contain these compounds, he explained.

“Once the paint is dried, typically it’s not going to be much of an issue any longer,” Nageotte said. However, people are most at risk of health issues during the painting process and for a few days after.

While anyone with asthma is at risk when using paint with VOCs, children — because their lungs are still developing until age 18 — and adults over 65 years of age are also at a higher risk, Nolen said.  

There are two key ways to protect your health from air pollution. The first is keeping the sources under control. When shopping for paint, people should look for products that have low or zero VOCs. The second is adding ventilation. Simply placing a box fan in a window can help pull any chemicals out of the room, Nolen explained. If the project can be done outside — like refinishing a table — Nolen said that people should refrain from working on the project indoors. 

If a room has poor ventilation, Nolen said that people should first address that poor ventilation before using paints or sealers with VOCs. 

“Some people find that if you’re especially sensitive, it might be good to have someone else do (the project),” she said.

Furnace filters should be changed a few days after a project is finished, Nageotte said.

If a person has been exposed to VOCs and suffers an asthma attack, Nageotte said that they should get out of the area, find fresh air and use their rescue medication. The person should also seek medical attention. 

“Make sure you monitor your health. Talk to your doctor about what you need to do,” Nolen said. 

Nageotte said that he has not come across any patients who are sensitive to paints without VOCs; however, there are individuals who can react to various chemicals that are labeled allergen-free. 

“Not every product is appropriate for every individual,” he said. 

While skin and blood testing can be done for various allergens, the testing is not available for a majority of the VOCs.