Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Paint The Town Green

I used to be an interior house painter. Well, maybe that's true -- and an exaggeration at the same time. I used to paint houses -- it was my summer job for a number of years -- and I think I did it after college for a while too.

I was the youngest on the crew -- I was probably 17 when I started -- maybe younger. We painted with oil-based and Latex paints. We used oil-based mainly for woodwork -- which, as we were painting primarily in Cambridge and Brookline, in big old houses, some of which were on the historic register, there was a lot of.

Because I was the youngest, and also the least experienced, I did a lot of the sanding. So much so that I usually couldn't shower when we were prepping a job -- my hands were so raw and red that I had to wear tape and gloves all the time. I also painted the insides of closets. It's funny the things you do that you don't really think about...

The inside of a closet is a good place to learn, as no one is going to look carefully for inconsistencies of weight and line. I would end the day in a closet kind of high and nauseous -- often having forgotten to take breaks, so entranced by the task -- and the chemicals -- at hand.

Oil-based paints -- they work better, spread better, have richer tone and quality. I imagine they are used far less frequently than they were then -- two decades ago.

Today I read a line in the New York Times which took me back to all of this -- in sort of an alarming way:

The Gaia’s list of green features is inspirational: solar panels, low-emission paints, adhesives and sealants; certified sustainably harvested wood; recycled-content carpets; recycled tiles and stone; low-energy windows; tubular skylights; a chemical-free landscape of native plants.

Cars have emissions. Trucks -- planes -- Paint?!

Here's a quote from an environmental site, which sites as its source the EPA.

House paint is quite a cocktail of chemicals, and these chemicals become a permanent resident in your home once spread all over your walls. That strong and pungent odour is a perfect example of what's being added to your indoor air. These chemicals, called volatile organic compounds (VOC) continue to be released into your home long after the initial smell has disappeared.

VOC fumes can cause headaches, dizziness, as well as irritation of the eyes, nose and throat. Combine paint fumes with all the other chemicals in your home (cleansers, air fresheners, bath & beauty products, pesticides and more), and you can have indoor air that is 2 to 5 times more polluted with organic compounds than outdoor air.

Turns out, the time in the summer when all the college students are home painting houses has its own name -- "peak painting and smog season." According to the Air Quality Management District, an office of the government,

Emissions from the application of architectural and industrial maintenance coatings during the summer months, typically known as the peak painting and smog season, are estimated to be more than 38 tons each day.

The good news is there are new paints being formulated. There are hotels in San Francisco that use them. And today, I don't feel so bad about letting the paint peel unattended on the front of my house... although I do have a little fear there is some lead paint up there, which is now falling to the ground and leaching into the soil...

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