From Lead to Sustainable: How Health and Safety Shaped Paint

ECOS Paints 07/21/2022
From Lead to Sustainable: How Health and Safety Shaped Paint

Since time immemorial, human beings have used paints to decorate their spaces, from cavemen painting on walls to the ancient Egyptians painting the walls of elaborate tombs. In ancient times, the purpose of paint was typically decorative or even religious. But over time, a different factor has edged its way into our paint-related decisions—health and safety.

Looking back at the history of how health and safety have shaped paint helps us better appreciate how far safe and sustainable paint has come.

The Rise and Fall of Lead-Based Paints

Origins of Lead Paint

When we think of unsafe paints, our thoughts often go to lead-based paints. While it’s common knowledge these days that lead-based paints can be harmful to our health, this wasn’t always the case. Lead-based paints were first created around the 4th century BC in ancient Greece.

The sunny coastal villages of that region could get extremely hot in the summer. To counteract the heat, painters began painting houses with white, lead-based paints. The lead helped give the paint a thickness and texture that was easy to work with and made the paint extremely durable.

Because of this, painters across the world continued to use lead-based paints for hundreds of years. There are some writings that suggest the painters of yesteryear were aware of some adverse effects of this paint, as some medieval scholars wrote about lead-based paints causing “apoplexy, paralysis, or epilepsy.” But the use continued to grow, peaking in the United States during the 19th century.

Herbert Needleman and Lead Paint Health Concerns

In the late 1970s, healthcare workers became aware of the potential side effects of lead-based paints. Herbert Needleman, a pediatrician and psychologist based out of Philadelphia, was the first to write extensively on the subject.

While he was working at a clinic in the city, he discovered a trend in which children with no other obvious signs of mental impairment showed a sluggishness of speech and mental lapses. As he looked out the window at a playground outside the clinic—one that was painted with lead-based paints—he realized those symptoms were similar to those struggling with lead poisoning.

In subsequent studies, Needleman tested the baby teeth of children in urban and suburban areas. He found that children from lower income areas—areas with higher levels of lead-based paint—had significantly higher levels of lead in their system than their counterparts who lived in more affluent areas. These children also had higher instances of behavioral issues, lower IQ scores, and reading delays.

Despite pushback from the lead industry, lead paints were officially banned from use in 1978. That’s why most experts agree that if you move into a house that was built before that year, you should test the walls for lead-based paint before doing any renovation work.

Concerns About VOCs in Paints

What VOCs Are and Why They’re in Paint

But lead isn’t the only potentially concerning ingredient that may be found in paint. Starting in the early 1900s, paint-making factories began putting solvents and other additives into paints. These additives contained volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

Volatile organic compounds are vapors that certain chemicals emit, such as those found in household cleaners, nail polish remover, aerosol sprays, and pesticides. They are the reason some paints produce a harsh, unpleasant odor. Additionally, they may cause certain health symptoms, such as:

  • Headaches
  • Nausea
  • Dizziness
  • Irritated throat and eyes
  • Breathing problems

With so many health concerns, it’s natural to wonder why VOCs would exist in paint, especially considering we have been making paint without them for thousands of years. Paint manufacturers originally added VOC-containing additives in order to counteract common problems such as paint float and crawling.

Environmental Movement and Paints

Our society’s move away from harsh additives and chemicals in paints is directly related to the environmental movement. The modern push to protect the environment began in the 19th century. And by the early ‘60s, Americans were growing especially concerned about air pollution. This concern led to regulations such as the Clean Air Act and other more local laws.

Some of these laws, including Los Angeles’ Rule 66, began to curtail the use of VOCs in products, including home paints. And beginning in the 1980s, paint manufacturers began creating paint products with limited or no VOCs in them. Non-for-profit organizations have also stepped up to help create criteria that paint companies can follow to create nontoxic paints.

Along with providing cleaner air, the push toward nontoxic paints also seeks to provide cleaner water and soil. Traditional paints leach toxic chemicals into the environment where they are thrown away. With healthier ingredients, these ingredients are less harmful rivers, groundwater, or soils.

A New Frontier: Sustainable Paints

Green Chemistry and Sustainable Paints

While eliminating VOCs from our paints is already a step in the right direction for learning how to let health and safety shape paint production, it isn’t the only technique available. Nontoxic paints help prevent further air pollution and prevent health conditions related to breathing. However, they may still harm the environment by being made unsustainably, which can harm our health and well-being in the long run.

This idea is embodied in the green chemistry movement. This movement follows similar principles as the environmental movement, with a focus on reducing pollution and making products with nontoxic materials. However, members of this movement are also concerned with reducing the number of materials needed to create a product.

For instance, the sustainable paint movement might be concerned with reducing the amount of fossil fuels used to produce paint by making all the ingredients of the paint in one location. They may also favor recycling methods that enable them to use fewer materials for every batch of paint that a manufacturer produces.

The Best Paints for Healthier Living

After decades of trying to create the best paints for health and safety, it’s clear that water-based paints are the perfect choice. These paints don’t contain lead and typically don't require harmful additives. They may also be created using sustainable methods.

If you’re looking for a reliable, eco-friendly paint company that can provide paints that are not only better for you but vibrant and colorful, look no further than ECOS Paints.