Ask the Experts: Eco Paint? Toxic Walls? American Clay? Low-VOC, no-VOC?

Via elephant journal
on Mar 14, 2009
get elephant's newsletter


voc non-toxic green paint
Dear Waylon,
Hi! I am glad you didn’t get killed when Pale Girl hit you.  I hope you (and your groin area) are okay.
I have a consideration for elephant journal: I would like to ask whether you have looked at non-toxic paints in your Conscious Consumerism articles.
I am trying to paint my apartment, as a temporary habitability improvement, before I get around to buying a house (which may take me several months).
I would like to use non-toxic paints, for a few reasons: (a) my girlfriend is asthmatic and has allergies (although she has never had a specific allergy to paint diagnosed, and has been a fine-art painter in recent incarnations); (b) I really do want to save the planet (although I don’t want anyone to know that I really care); (c) my fellow Buddhist buddy Barry Solomon is on my ass about the toxins (but he believes that even chocolate pudding is a toxin!).
Barry referred me to a hardware store on 51st and Telegraph in Berkeley, Scout Hardware (really a design shop with paint), that carries a brand of non-V.O.C., non-carcinogen paint, Mythic. Mythic claims realistically to be the only non-V.O.C., non-carcinogen paint.  I got a few samples, and the service person the hardware store told me that Mythic covers better than ordinary paint (it’s latex-based, but I believe its basic latex formula has been changed to remove V.O.C.s etc.).
My Buddhist buddy August Garcia, also a contractor, floor-sander, painter and house-flipper, recommended the Aura line from Bemjamin Moore, which is supposed to be non-V.O.C., but I can’t figure out whether it really is from its product information, which looks like it merely fills out a detailed government form.  The colors are awesome, and August says it covers extremely well.
There are also the milk-based paints.  A very nice neo-Hippie Mission-Hipster single-speed bicycle-riding collage-artist acquaintance of mine told me that his friends have used these and they work, but that they do indeed smell bad for several days, as the milk curdles on your walls.  Ugh.  Let’s get real.  Everybody knows you can’t make paint out of milk, unless it’s for a one-day kindergarten project.  If you do it right, it’s called a milkshake, and you drink it. 😉
So, I would like to know about V.O.C.s, carcinogens, and other things in paint, and which paints have how much of them and which of the really bad ones they have or don’t have.
I would also like to know how toxins in paint work.  What is their lifecycle?  When and for how long do they come out?  Mostly when you paint, or later too?  And how much?  And what helps to bring them out (exposure to air, heat, heavy breathing, or what?)  
I have a few other problems re paints and toxins:
1) There have been mildew problems in my building due to leaky pipes in the walls, and I would like to coat at least the bathroom and the kitchen with a mildew-resistant primer.  The ones that have been recommended include the Zinsser’s Bulls-Eye line, and these are definitely toxic (any product with “Bulls-Eye” in its name is toxic); the one I would get, the water-based, is less so.  I feel like the mildew would definitely be worse for my girlfriend (and me) than the paint toxins, but this really depends on the toxin lifecycle I mentioned above.  Also, maybe covering the toxic mildew-resistant paint with non-toxic paint would keep out the toxins – is that so?  Are there even non-toxic, mildew-resistant primers?  or are toxins necessary to kill or to stop mildew?
2) Even though especially Aura has awesome colors (and Mythic isn’t bad at all in its color selection), I can’t find the colors I want (golden apricot cream; I know it sounds like an ice cream from Humphrey Slocombe).  Scout won’t (and perhaps can’t) mix them to spec, and the Aura brand just can’t be so mixed – its colors are mixed by some computerized mixers that can’t be reprogrammed by the human mixers.  So besides the issues with toxins in paints, there are the issues with no-one mixing your paint how you want these days!  What happened to humans doing it right for other humans?
Well, please let me know if these paint issues are ones elephantJournal is willing to take on.
In any case, I will look forward to more posts from you and I will now try to break my habit of buying a new shower curtain, closing the bathroom door and sealing it up with towels, then huffing for an hour or so…
Keep up the GOOD work. 😉 Best,
Yours, C.
I asked my local eco wall buddies to comment. One’s come through so far (from one of the best green companies and solutions I’ve ever encountered, personally-speaking—half my walls were done by Earth Clay Works in natural American clay and it’s gorgeous, non-toxic, child-friendly, great to the touch). I’ll post more replies (from anyone out there) as I get them. 
“Hi C.,
Congratulations on wanting to improve your indoors for personal and global health – you have good reason to be concerned. VOCs, are harmful chemicals that get emitted into the air as gasses that can cause eye, nose, and throat irritation; headaches, loss of coordination, nausea; and damage to liver, kidney, and the central nervous system. Most say the off-gassing from VOCs in paint lasts for about 45 days after application, but recent research shows that only 50% of the off-gassing occurs in the first year, which means the negative impact is long term. So, when choosing paint, you want to get as clean as possible, and since this is America and we don’t mandate honesty in labels, just know that some paints labeled as odor-free or containing no VOC’s can be misleading. Although VOC percentages appear on labels for interior paints, federally mandated disclosure only refers to its impact as an outdoor pollutant. Although they may be harmful to humans, some ingredients are exempt from VOC labeling because they don’t negatively affect the ozone.
I am not an expert on paints, so I can’t make any suggestions on which brands are the best (or honest in their labeling), but I can offer you another solution. American Clay Earth Plaster is a wall finish that uses only natural clays, recycled and reclaimed aggregates, and natural pigments in its product (no VOCs). The product creates NO off-gassing (for your health) and no inherent waste on site (for the planet’s health). Besides being completely toxic free, the clay actually improves the health of your interior… Clay is a breathable finish and releases negative ions into the air, having a similar impact as a plug-in ionizer, plus its mold-resistant. So overall, a natural plaster like American Clay solves all of your dilemmas, plus it has an incredibly beautiful finished look with lots of options for textures and colors. You can learn more at or if you are in the Boulder/Denver area, check us out at, we believe so strongly in the benefits of the clay that it is the only product my company works with.  
Feel free to contact me directly with more questions at [email protected], or comment/query below.
Kip Golden
Owner, Earth Clay Works / 303.818.7903


About elephant journal

elephant journal is dedicated to "bringing together those working (and playing) to create enlightened society." We're about anything that helps us to live a good life that's also good for others, and our planet. >>> Founded as a print magazine in 2002, we went national in 2005 and then (because mainstream magazine distribution is wildly inefficient from an eco-responsible point of view) transitioned online in 2009. >>> elephant's been named to 30 top new media lists, and was voted #1 in the US on twitter's Shorty Awards for #green content...two years running. >>> Get involved: > Subscribe to our free Best of the Week e-newsletter. > Follow us on Twitter Fan us on Facebook. > Write: send article or query. > Advertise. > Pay for what you read, help indie journalism survive and thrive.


4 Responses to “Ask the Experts: Eco Paint? Toxic Walls? American Clay? Low-VOC, no-VOC?”

  1. […] a health perspective, most paints contain harmful off-gassing chemicals called VOCs (volatile organic compounds). Exposure to VOCs in paint can trigger asthma attacks, eye irritation, […]

  2. […] my car, and bike/walk/bus (mostly bicycle) 365 days a year. I take my shoes off at the door. I got clay on my formerly smoke-scented bubbly wallpapered-walls. I exposed brick on other walls, relieving me […]

  3. Painting your nursery with non-toxic paint is the most affordable step towards building a healthy nursery.

  4. Dan Cook says:

    When you have always chosen pale colors for your home, adding yellow to your home décor seems like a bold decision. Maybe that’s why owners that want to make an important change most definitely turn to companies that do interior design NJ in order to let professionals do their job. After all, even though it is well known that yellow is a cheerful color you need a specialist to tell you that adding yellow to your bedroom can instantly lift your mood.