The hot, new color being pushed by the paint industry is green. Not as in emerald green or forest green. Rather, as in the green that has colored a spreading environmental awareness.
From traditionally formulated paints to new "alternative" paints derived from plants, the word is that paints can color and brighten our world and do so without harming it, or us.
According to a 1989 survey commissioned by the National Assn. of Home Builders, painting was the most popular fix-up project in the United States. That same year, according to the National Paint and Coatings Assn., close to 500 million gallons of paint were applied to homes by professionals and do-it-yourselfers. That translates into a lot of exposure to paint. While that exposure had inherent hazards in the past, it is less threatening or even benign now, according to paint-industry officials.
As in other industries, the green movement has not just spurred changes in established products; it also has spawned alternatives. Paints based on a European technology that employs natural substances and omits chemical additives have been finding their way into homes designed and built for personal and environmental safety.
Among the new companies born of environmental consciousness is the Natural Choice in Santa Fe, N.M., which sells and distributes Livos Plantchemistry, a German line of nontoxic paints derived from plants and about 150 natural materials. In Alton, N.H., Bau, a company that designs and builds environmentally safe homes, has expanded into selling Biofa, a line of natural German paints. In addition to being made from natural raw materials, both brands of paint are produced without pesticides, preservatives or anti-mildew agents.
When he first founded Natural Choice eight years ago, Rudolf Reitz says, "it was very new and very difficult, but in the middle of 1989, there was a change in consciousness." The company started with 20 paints and wood finishes and now lists 60.
Erick Hufschmid, head of Bau, has been importing his paints for a year and selling them by mail order. Demand has picked up enough for the company to branch out. Hufschmid is opening a metropolitan-area outlet in Greenwich, Conn.
The new paints achieve their environmental goals without giving up quality, says Paul Bierman-Lytle, a New Canaan, Conn., architect who has found himself in the forefront of environmental architecture. Bierman-Lytle has used natural paints extensively in his projects around the country and calls them "a delight." He says the quality is the same and sometimes better than that of traditional paints.
The fact that they were developed in Europe, he says, stems from "a traditional history of craftsmen who worked with materials that originally were not petroleum-based," dating back to the Renaissance. He cautions, however, that because of the differences in texture and consistency, "the paints should be applied by a skilled craftsman. This is not a paint for someone who just slops it out of the can."
As with other eco-products, prices generally are higher than those of standard paints. Reitz sells a 1 1/2-gallon container for about $42, which translates into a per-gallon price of $28, about the price of a high-end standard paint. Hufschmid sells a gallon for $41.50, postpaid anywhere in the United States.
As the new products enter the marketplace, the U.S. paint industry is making its pitch to environmentally concerned consumers. There were problems in the past, the industry acknowledges, but they either have been overcome or are in the process of being resolved.
"Paint is environmentally friendly. It's not like the lead and mercury of years ago," says Ted Friedmann, president of the Environmental Coatings Council, a trade group. "The paint industry has been reformulating from hazardous material for many years."
The first widely publicized blotch against the industry was the discovery that lead in paint constituted a health hazard, especially for children. Use of lead-based paint in residential housing was banned nationwide in 1978, but problems persist. A House panel was told this week in Washington that 3.8 million U.S. children are still at risk from peeling lead-based paint or lead-paint dust.
Health hazards also have been linked to paint with mercury. As a result, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency last summer banned the use of mercury compounds in interior latex paint. The agency permitted the continued use of mercury in exterior latex paints but required warning labels.
The exterior paints, says Al Heier, an EPA spokesman, are on the verge of being mercury-free; only one manufacturer continues to use mercury in its exterior paints but is expected to discontinue its use shortly.