Time to Close the Europe/US Paint Healthfulness Gap

James Vallette | April 10, 2014 | Policies

Changes as significant as the elimination of lead and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are rolling over the paint industry. Leading global paint companies are removing four classes of toxic ingredients from products sold in Europe in order to qualify for valued ecolabels. Many of the same companies dominate the US market, but do not offer these healthier products for sale here. It is time they did.

Troublesome ingredients under fire include:

  • Nonylphenol ethoxylate (NPE) surfactants, which are endocrine-disrupting substances;
  • Triclosan antimicrobials, which can contain high levels of dioxin residuals, and are building up in human bodies and the global environment;
  • Nanoparticles, which have become widespread in paints despite growing concern over the potential health hazards of being exposed to nanoscale materials; and,
  • Semi-volatile organic compounds (SVOCs), many of which are harmful to human health but have not been considered by indoor air quality programs.

The most heavily used "green" paint certification program in the United States -- the industry-run Master Painters Institute Green Performance standard -- addresses none of these substances. Green Seal-11, the other U.S.-based paint ecolabel, has prohibited the use of NPE surfactants since 2010, but it does not yet address triclosan, nanoparticles, or SVOCs.

Most paint ecolabel programs outside the U.S. prohibit NPE and other alkylphenol surfactants. These include programs run by France, Germany, Japan, and the European Union.

Last month, the European Union Standing Committee on Biocidal Products voted to prohibit the use of triclosan in paints. (In the U.S., the situation with triclosan is unclear. In August 2013, Microban withdrew its EPA registration that allowed the biocide's use in paints; however, triclosan is still manufactured by other companies, in China and India, and imported into the United States.)

Nanoscale materials have been targeted by some big European national paint ecolabels. Germany's Blue Angel RZ12a and RZ102 and Austria's Ecolabel UZ01 and UZ17 paint standards restrict nanoparticles in paints. France's NF Environment 130 program outright prohibits the intentional addition of nanomaterials.

And, in a development that represents a potentially significant step forward in improving the healthfulness of paints, the European Union is about to launch a revised EU Ecolabel for Paints and Varnishes that quantifies and limits SVOC content. Approved last November and due to be released on April 14, the new version caps SVOC content at 30 grams per liter (g/l) for white paint applied to interior walls, and 60 g/l for some other applications.

European ecolabels are not niche programs. Thousands of paints are certified under them. Four-dozen paint companies participate in Blue Angel, twenty-two companies in NF Environment, and over seventy in the EU Ecolabel for Paints and Varnishes. These include heavyweight manufacturers like AkzoNobel, Benjamin Moore, and PPG.

When will Europe's progress translate into cleaner paints in North America?

A healthfulness gap is widening between what manufacturers of building products sell in Europe, and what they sell here. Consumers in the U.S. can make the reasonable demand to end this double standard. We must ensure that paint manufacturers protect the health of all consumers, equally, wherever we live.