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Sustainable Paints: A Healthier Start To The School Year

This Fall, 53 million primary and secondary students in the U.S. will walk into hallways, classrooms, cafeterias and gyms spruced up over the summer by hard-working school building maintenance staff. Often, the smell of fresh paint will hang in the air.

A new coat of paint makes a classroom feel cleaner and brighter, but the smell of fresh paint can also be a signal that hazardous chemicals are polluting the air schoolchildren and teachers breathe throughout the school day. Paint can contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs) — hazardous chemicals that have been found to cause ground-level ozone. VOCs and the many other chemicals in paints have been found to be carcinogenic and to cause respiratory ailments, including asthma. Even after the fresh paint smell dissipates, chemicals continue to be emitted.

Paint fumes are just some of the indoor air pollutants found in schools, but they are potent ones. The EPA has found that among consumer and commercial products, paints, stains and other architectural coatings are second only to automobile emissions as a cause of VOC emissions. But there are alternatives to paints containing high levels of VOC and that pose a threat to students and teachers alike.

In recent years, paint and coating manufacturers have developed low-VOC paints to meet EPA regulations as well as standards set by a number of states. California’s Air Resources Board (CARB), considered a model for state standards, has set VOC limits that reduce emissions while still allowing for functional performance for all regions of the United States.

Fumes aren’t the only thing to consider when purchasing paints that help protect human and environmental health. A paint that has been certified as environmentally preferable by Green Seal, the nation’s leading independent nonprofit providing certification for sustainable goods and services, not only meets standards for low VOCs, it will also be free of other harmful chemicals, including heavy metals, phthalates, formaldehyde donors, carcinogens, mutagens, reproductive toxins, hazardous air pollutants and ozone-depleting compounds.

Choosing a safer paint, however, is only part of the process for a healthier school. To decrease a painting project’s negative impact on health and the environment, it is important to also follow instructions for those paints. Labels and manufacturer’s websites should include instructions for providing adequate ventilation as paint is being applied and as it dries. Many paint manufacturers also provide calculation systems that help you determine the amount of paint needed, which helps reduce waste.

Of course, despite the best efforts to calculate needs, paint will often be leftover. It should be saved for other projects, donated, or taken to your community hazardous waste facility. Recycled-content latex paint, which uses the recycled paint to make brand new paint, is growing in popularity.

Buying paints in packaging made from recovered materials, recyclable or returned as part of a manufacturer take-back program, is also an effective way to make a painting project more sustainable. Just like everything else that comes in a package, look for the official recycling symbol on the bucket.

Taking steps to ensure that the painting done at your school is not detrimental to the health of students and teachers, or to our environment, is critical. You can have a role in protecting them by choosing the most sustainable route as you paint your school.

More information on how to paint your school in the cleanest, greenest way possible can be found at:

  • The National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) is a nonprofit, international environmental advocacy organization. Protecting public health by preventing pollution is among its goals. NRDC, with the Healthy Schools Network, has created the Green Squad, which gets children involved in making their schools greener and healthier. You’ll find fact sheets at the Green Squad website about choosing and using green paints and other products.
  • The Healthy Schools Network is the nation’s leading voice for children’s environmental health at school. Its website includes information and links on how to improve air quality in schools including using low toxicity paints.

Green Seal

The GS-11 and GS-47 standards are being combined into a single standard, titled “GS-11, Green Seal Standard for Paints, Coatings, Stains, and Sealers.” The new standard will cover more product categories including floor coatings and fire-resistant coatings. The limits on VOCs will be updated to reference CARB regulations, and other changes will include how VOCs are defined and measured. Publication of the standard is expected in the fall. Paints and coatings certified to the current standard can be found at

This article originally appeared in the issue of .

About the Author

Linda Chipperfield is vice president of marketing and communications for Green Seal, which identifies products and services that are environmentally responsible and provides public education for creating a more sustainable world. For more information about Green Seal, visit or call 202/872-6400.