EarthTalk: I'm moving into a freshly painted
apartment, and am curious to know whether it makes any sense
to repaint the walls with non-toxic paint in hopes of “covering
up” the toxic stuff already there. Or is it too late?
-- Erin East, New York, NY
indoor paints do indeed release potentially toxic chemicals
during and shortly after application; though once paint is
dry the majority of the offending substances, collectively
known as “volatile organic compounds” or “VOCs,”
tend to stay sealed up. As such, most people will not be affected
once the telltale new paint smell has faded away.
If someone is suffering adverse health effects from exposure
to fresh paint it should not be taken lightly. “Off-gassing”
VOCs can cause serious respiratory tract irritation as well
as visual impairment, headaches, dizziness and memory loss.
Additionally, many VOCs have been shown to cause cancer in
animals, and some are suspected of being carcinogenic to humans.
Health effects vary greatly depending on the particular chemicals
involved and the amount of exposure and individual sensitivity
of those living with them. Besides paints, a wide range of
other home products--including building materials, carpets,
furniture, cleaning supplies and bug sprays--can emit VOCs.
If someone is suffering from respiratory problems or other
symptoms upon moving into a freshly painted residence, or
remaining sensitive long after a paint job, there are many
paints now on the market that can help decrease the amount
of VOCs emitted into the air.
There are essentially three general categories of non-toxic
(or low-toxic) paints: zero-VOC, low-VOC and so-called “natural.”
Keep in mind, however, that the term “non-toxic”
is used in its broadest sense. Even “zero-VOC”
formulations, such as those made by AFM Safecoat, Yolo Colorhouse
and Ecos, for example, can contain trace amounts (up to five
grams per liter or less) of toxic ingredients.
Some leading low-VOC paints can be obtained from manufacturers
such as Cloverdale, Vista and Miller, to name a few. Industry
leaders Benjamin Moore and Sherwin-Williams also offer own
low-VOC lines. “Natural” paints and finishes,
from manufacturers such as Livos, Alglaia and BioShield, are
made from raw ingredients such as water, plant oils, clay
and milk protein, and as such usually contain minimal amounts
of VOCs. Consumers can track down such healthier paints at
retailers like the Environmental Home Center and Greenhome.com,
and even at some of the larger home repair chains.
Precautions should be taken during the application of any
paint. Only buy exactly what you need and apply it with adequate
ventilation. Remember to always keep paints out of the reach
of children and pets, and safely dispose of all unused product.
If ventilation is not sufficient, wear a respirator with a
filter that will capture and prevent the inhalation of VOCs.
CONTACTS: U.S. EPA “Introduction to
Indoor Air Quality: Volatile Organic Compounds,” www.epa.gov/iaq/voc.html;
Environmental Home Center, www.environmentalhomecenter.com;
COURTESY OF GETTY IMAGES
paints can “off-gas” a number of potentially toxic
chemicals, collectively known as VOCs, that can cause serious
respiratory tract irritation as well as visual impairment,
headaches, dizziness and memory loss. Fortunately a number
of non-toxic, low-toxic and “natural” paints are
now on the market.
I've heard the term “greenbelts” pertaining
to the natural coastline barriers in India, Malaysia and Sri
Lanka that protected some people from the worst of the Indian
Ocean Tsunami. But what are greenbelts that exist in urban
areas? -- Helen, via e-mail
The term “greenbelt” refers to any area of undeveloped
natural land that has been set aside near urban or developed
land to provide open space, offer light recreational opportunities
or contain development. And yes, the natural greenbelts along
areas of Southeast Asia’s coastlines, including the
region’s mangrove forests, served as buffers and helped
to prevent even greater loss of life from the December 2004
Greenbelts in and around urban areas have probably not saved
any lives, but they are important nonetheless to the ecological
health of any given region. The various plants and trees in
greenbelts serve as organic sponges for various forms of pollution,
and as storehouses of carbon dioxide to help offset global
warming. “Trees are an important part of the city infrastructure,”
says Gary Moll of American Forests. Because of the many benefits
trees provide to cities, Moll likes to refer to them as the
“ultimate urban multi-taskers.”
Greenbelts are also important to help urban dwellers feel
more connected to nature. Dr. S.C. Sharma of the Council of
Scientific and Industrial Research in India believes that
all cities should “earmark certain areas for the development
of greenbelts [to] bring life and color to the cement concrete
jungle and [a] healthy environment to the urbanities.”
Greenbelts are also important in efforts to limit sprawl,
which is the tendency for cities to spread out and encroach
on rural lands and wildlife habitat. Three U.S. states--Oregon,
Washington and Tennessee--require their largest cities to
establish so-called “urban growth boundaries”
to limit sprawl through the establishment of planned greenbelts.
Meanwhile, the cities of Minneapolis, Virginia Beach, Miami
and Anchorage have created urban growth boundaries on their
own. In California’s Bay Area, the non-profit Greenbelt
Alliance has successfully lobbied for the establishment of
21 urban growth boundaries across four counties surrounding
the city of San Francisco.
The concept has also caught on in Canada, with the cities
of Ottawa, Toronto and Vancouver adopting similar mandates
for the creation of greenbelts to combat sprawl. Urban greenbelts
can also be found in and around larger cities in Australia,
New Zealand, Sweden and the United Kingdom.
The green belt concept has even spread to rural areas, such
as in East Africa. Womens’ rights and environmental
activist Wangari Maathai launched the Green Belt Movement
in Kenya in 1977 as a grassroots tree-planting program to
address the challenges of deforestation, soil erosion and
lack of water there. To date, her organization has overseen
the planting of 40 million trees across Africa. In 2004 Maathai
was the first environmentalist to be awarded the prestigious
Nobel Peace Prize. Why “peace?” “There can
be no peace without equitable development and there can be
no development without sustainable management of the environment
in a democratic and peaceful space,” said Maathai in
her acceptance speech.
CONTACTS: American Forests Urban Sprawl Information,
Greenbelt Alliance, www.greenbelt.org;
The Green Belt Movement, www.greenbeltmovement.org.
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