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Harmful VOCs, Lead, Arsenic Detected in Emulsion Paints albeit in Small Amount - CHOICE # 457

  • 2014.11.17

Choosing the right interior emulsion paint to give your home a new coat of paint ahead of the Chinese New Year, is not simply a matter of decoration with the right colour choice.

Beneath the surface gloss of an emulsion paint lurks the risk of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that could cause irritation to the eyes, nose and throat and, to some people, headaches, dizziness and nausea, if not more.

Indeed, as the saying goes, there is more to it than meets the eye.

The Consumer Council has produced a timely test report on emulsion paints to help the DIY in their choice of paint, and to enhance the public awareness of the problems of VOCs and indoor air quality.

VOCs are a common source of indoor air pollution and, absorbed through the skin and lungs, harmful to health. Excessive exposure to elevated levels of VOCs may cause respiratory diseases and even nervous system problems.

For these reasons, the VOC content of interior emulsion paints is subject to legal limits under the Air Pollution Control (Volatile Organic compounds) Regulation.

As water-based emulsion paints are generally found to contain lower levels of VOCs, in comparison to the solvent-based - and consumers will do well to choose as such - the Council's test therefore focused on 10 models of water-based emulsion paints.

According to the test, the VOC content of the paint samples varied from under 10 gram per litre (6 models) to 25 gram per litre (1 model).

Despite the variations in VOC content, all the models in the test were in compliance with the Regulation which stipulates for ready-to-use water-based emulsion paints a maximum limit of 50 gram per litre, and within the permitted level.

But VOCs are not the only substance of health concerns, formaldehyde and heavy metals (lead, arsenic, mercury, cadmium, selenium and hexavalent chromium), amongst others, were also investigated in the test.

Small amounts of lead were detected in 4 models of different colours, ranging from 20 ppm to 38 ppm. Young children are particularly susceptible to lead poisoning which may adversely affect the child's healthy growth and mental development.

In addition, minimal amount of arsenic was found present in one model of different colours varying from 2.1 ppm to 2.5 ppm. Long-term exposure to elevated concentrations of arsenic may increase the risk of cancer of the skin or bladder or heart disease.

In both cases, the contents of the 2 heavy metals were in compliance with current eco-labelling scheme requirements.

To reduce the risk from VOCs, keep the rooms well-ventilated during and after painting - by opening the windows and doors to let in fresh air from the outside or installing fans to let the air clear.

Do not dispose of unused paints in sewers or toilets to avoid pollution to water and endangering marine life.

Besides safety and environmental considerations, the test also assessed their durability including performance on, impact (resistance to impact by a falling object to a paint film), cross-hatch cutting (adhesion to substrate), scrub resistance and mould resistance.

Paints often become soiled especially near doorways, windows and in work and play areas. Consumers can choose those with good quality in scrub resistance against erosion on repeated scrubbing during the paint's life.

Mouldy walls and ceilings are not uncommon in Hong Kong because of the high humidity especially in the Spring months. Mould and mildew-resistant paints are available for choice in the market. But concerns have been raised about the presence of potentially toxic biocides in such paints.

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