“Everywhere, the glaringly unsustainable nature of our society and the injustices of late twentieth-century materialism have been met by an intelligent response from people who see the need for the obvious alternative: to bring consumption under control, to end waste, to ensure the survival of our planets diverse life forms, and to protect the rights of future generation.” 1

That was Bob Brown and Peter Singer in 1996, and ten years later we have Al Gore, who should have been the most powerful man in the world singing a similar song. There is a groundswell of mainstream public concern about climate change and the environment. In America the often criticised chain Wal-Mart is undergoing a green transition, opening eco-stores using renewable energy and resources to fit out the stores. They found that not only are customers more happy shopping in stores flooded with natural light, they actually spend more! 2 Even Channel Sevens tabloid TV Sunrise program recently ran a feature called “Cool the Globe” where they asked viewers to sign a petition calling on the federal government not to scrap its rebate on solar panels. The program cited Al Gores An Inconvenient Truth movie as the catalyst for the campaign.

Amidst this new way of thinking for the Australian community at large my wife and I saw the opportunity to launch our new painting and decorating business specialising in the use of non toxic, eco friendly paint. After much research in late 2005, I found some worrying facts about the conventional paints that are used to paint our homes and workplaces and the effects they have on our health and the environment.

Paints have been linked to indoor air pollution and with increased interest and government incentives to properly insulate our homes coupled with the increased use of heaters in winter, and air conditioners in summer our homes have become hermetically sealed places where stagnant air sits day after day. The German Ministry of the Environment found that a tightly insulated building with walls, floors, and ceilings coated in synthetic finishes (conventional paints included) can have indoor air pollution levels up to ten times higher than outdoors. 3

I use the term conventional paints for the majority of paints on the market, those which contain Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), a heady mix of solvents and chemicals which continue to give off fumes for three months and even up to five years after application. According to the World Health Organisation, the U.S Environmental Protection Agency and the Wannabee Foundation, paints that are manufactured using petrochemical refinement processes have been found to cause cancer; respiratory allergenic responses; birthing problems; and can lead to the poisoning of our waterways

Unsurprisingly then the overwhelming majority of paints used to paint homes, workplaces, hospitals and schools (both inside and out) have been found to be extremely toxic. 4 Most paint manufacturers including the major brands continue to produce oil based paints. These paints according to one manufacturer (who would still sell many thousands of litres per year of oil based paint) contain up to 50% solvents which are released into the air as the paint dries, contributing to Greenhouse gas. Incredibly surface coatings contribute more to greenhouse gases than the family car. 5 Even many water based paints still contain levels of VOCs that I am not comfortable in using. Instead we have sourced three great companies selling VOC free paints that we use everyday in our business.

Alarmingly some studies have linked the chemicals found in paint to be harmful to unborn babies. Dr Judy Ford a researcher with the Pregnancy and Lifestyle Study (PALS) recruited 585 couples who were planning families and followed them up after the baby was born or miscarriage occurred. The results of the research found that the partners of men exposed to solvents for at least four hours a week during the previous six months were over three times more likely to miscarry compared to a control group. 6

Health problems can arise from even short-term exposure to conventional paints including eye and respiratory tract infection, headaches, and dizziness. 7 People who suffer from ailments such as Asthma, Multiple Chemical Sensitivity, M.E (myalgic encephalomyelitis), Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, and Post Viral Fatigue Syndrome, or a myriad of other sensitivities and allergies can be affected by even small amounts of chemicals in conventional paints including formaldehyde (used as a preservative) and coalescent glycols (used as chemical solvents). 8

In the nine months that we have been using non toxic and ultra low VOC paints in people’s houses and offices we have received great feedback about the quality of the paint and the difference it has made to people by not using conventional paints. Last week we painted the home of three children, the eldest having a history of violent reactions to paint. However, he told us that he had absolutely no reaction to the products we used and could stay in his home while we painted.

Unfortunately many other painters and builders are blind to the health risks to themselves, their customers, and the environment when using conventional paints, and some even actively discourage the use of non toxic products. We hope to continue to save many hundreds of litres of solvents turning into greenhouse gases by using non toxic paint in our contracting business this year and excitingly also aim in 2007, to open Brisbanes only paint shop dedicated to selling a range of non toxic – eco friendly paints.

I am constantly inspired by a free postcard we recently picked up at a cafe which simply reads “YOU can change the world”. Can the use of non toxic paints really change the world? Of course! Imagine the combined effects of millions of home decorators, painters, and builders using paints free from toxic chemicals and solvents. Not only would there be a serious reduction in greenhouse gas emissions we may also have a healthier, happier population.


  1. Bob Brown & Peter Singer, The Greens, Text Publishing Co. 1996.
  2. Hawken, P. Lovins, A. Lovins L.A. Natural Capitalism. Black Bay Books. 1999
  3. S. Dreyfus and A. Spivkovsky. Colour and Cancer, the Hazards of Housepaint. Soft Technology (unkown date)
  4. http://www.ecologicalhomes.com.au/
  5. Dulux. Minimal Environmental Impact Paint Guide. Ver 6 March 06
  6. Pregnancy and Lifestyle Study, Dr J. Ford, in 3.
  7. Health Issues of Paint in 3
  8. The ECOS story, ECOS. 2006