Even Indoor Air Should be Fresh

For most people, the word ‘environment’ brings to mind scenes of the outdoors: open, natural spaces and fresh, clean air. So when we think of threats to our air quality in our environment, we automatically think of the pollution that comes out of the pipes of cars, power plants and factories. But there’s another side to air quality that most of us miss: indoor air quality.

Why it’s an issue
Unless you’re a farmer or a fisherman, the chances are pretty high that you spend most of your time indoors. Whether by choice or necessity, it’s estimated that most of us spend as much as 90% of our time indoors.

That means that for the vast majority of our lives we’re breathing inside air that might or might not be good quality.

Years ago, homes were so leaky that fresh air came in by itself – a type of ventilation more commonly referred to as draftiness. Homes built today are much more airtight. They are much more energy efficient, too, and that’s a good thing. However, if airtight homes do not have a system for bringing in fresh air to replace stale air, inside air can become smelly, moist and unhealthy. The same thing is true for offices and other commercial buildings.

Indoor emissions
Most of us know that new cars and new homes have a distinctive smell. In both cases, what we smell are small amounts of fumes given off by materials used to build the car or the home. In cars, the smell usually comes from vinyl and carpet. In homes, smells come from building materials such as vinyl flooring, carpet, glue in wood products and paint.

The technical term for this is offgassing, and the effects are sometimes as unpleasant as the word. That’s because if we can smell a chemical, it means there are actually small amounts of that chemical in the air. And some of them aren’t especially good for us, especially if we have allergies or other sensitivities.

New homes lose their distinctive smell quickly, but offgassing often continues at lesser levels for years. And if you replace some flooring or put on a fresh coat of paint, the new home smell is back for a visit.

The basics of paint
Let’s take a closer look at paint. It consists of three main ingredients: a liquid base; color pigments; and a glue-like binder to make the paint stick to a surface. When we apply paint, the liquid base evaporates, leaving only the binder and the color behind.

Years ago, most paints were oil-based, and they would smell for weeks as the oil base dried. They released a multitude of chemicals – known as volatile organic compounds, or VOCs – which were not very healthy for people or the environment.

Then water-based latex paints were developed, and they now dominate the market. They smell less, but they still do release some amount of VOCs from their pigments and binders.

Potential paint solutions
Here’s some good news: there are interior and exterior paints available that give off virtually no chemicals as they dry. They’re made of natural bases like plant oils, milk protein, beeswax, clay and other minerals, and they use only non-toxic pigments. They improve air quality and tend to be better for the environment too. Some may be found at paint stores, but you’ll likely have to ask for them specifically. The best have a ‘Green Seal’ logo as proof of their quality.

Here’s another nice twist. One type of Green Seal paint, Eco-House, is made right here in New Brunswick. Owner Henry Reinartz established the company in 1989, first providing durable paints for artists and outdoor murals. The company has since diversified into paints for more mainstream uses. Manufacturing takes place in Nackawic, and sales are done mainly over the internet. Ironically, most of Eco-House’s sales are to other parts of Canada and the US. An exception is CentreBeam, a historical building in Saint John, where Eco-House’s earthy colors fit the restoration project perfectly.

Eco-House paints dry without giving off smells or chemicals, and are very durable. They have a liquid mineral base and natural non-toxic pigments. They’re especially well suited to restoration projects. The company’s website, www.eco-house.com, provides more information.

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Carl Duivenvoorden is one of two Atlantic Canadians trained by Al Gore to deliver live presentations of “An Inconvenient Truth”. He lives in Upper Kingsclear, and can be reached via his website, www.changeyourcorner.com.

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