The fumes from most latex paints are generally regarded as safe, especially compared with older oil-based paint containing lead. The main area of concern in latex paints are VOCs (volatile organic compounds), which diffuse into the air after the paint has been applied. While VOCs may not make you feel immediately sick, it is wise to exercise caution with latex paint fumes, especially for pregnant women and children.
Volatile Organic Compounds
VOCs are chemical particulates that are emitted as gasses from many items and substances, including latex paint. Whether all VOCs contained in paint are harmful, and if so, at what levels, it is generally agreed that less is better, both for the environment and for human health. The EPA has found that about a dozen different oganic compounds may pollute indoor air at levels two to five times higher than outside the home. Federal law limits the number of VOCs in different paints, and the VOC level is printed on the paint can label.
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VOCs in Paint
The fumes from latex paint are going to be dispersed too quickly to be a concern when painting outside. When painting inside, allow for plenty of ventilation by opening windows and using fans to pull the fumes outside. If this isn't possible, wear a respirator while working, and keep children away from the area until the paint has completely dried. The Environmental Protection Agency recommends leaving the fans on continuously during the painting process, and for two to three days afterward while it is drying.
Chemicals in Latex Paint
Some other chemicals in paint that may cause people to feel sick are ethylene glycol, which can cause upper respiratory irritation and headaches, and benzene, which may be a carcinogen. Mercury is used as a mildew and mold retardant in exterior paints, and long-term exposure to mercury can cause organ damage. MSDS (material safety data sheets) information on the chemical properties of all paints can be accessed through the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) website.
Low- or No-VOC Paint
Many paint companies are now producing lines of low- or no-VOC paint that are environmentally friendly and have zero or very low VOCs and lower odor. While some of these paints have not held up as well as high-VOC paints in testing, according to "Consumer Reports," paint companies are working hard to make their "green" paints more durable and washable without compromising environmental- and health-friendliness.
Avoid using exterior latex paints and primers inside. They are more likely to contain higher levels of chemicals, mildewcides, pigments and VOCs that can make you feel sick if used indoors, even with good ventilation.