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The price of green

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jackiewheeler | Dec 17, 2010 12:00 AM

This holiday, the spouse and I have decided to use some of our days off work to catch up on long-overdue home maintenance projects. For us, as for most other people, money is tighter this year, and we’re looking for ways to save on the supplies we’ll need. However, we’re also hoping to be as “green” as possible, and combining these two values has turned out to be quite a challenge. Because we hate painting and have avoided it as long as possible, this chore will be our main focus and the paint itself will take up most of our funds. For indoors at least we’re planning to use low- or no-VOC (volatile organic compound) paints. These products have gotten a lot of publicity in the last few years and are now pretty widely available, although their cost is still considerably higher than the old-school, smelly paints we’re more familiar with.

As I’ve written before in this blog, I’m not completely sold on “green” and “greener” products, for two reasons; the first is the widespread use of “greenwashing” by manufacturers to exaggerate their green claims. The second is cost, which keeps them (presuming they are indeed safer for people and environment) less accessible to everyone but especially the underprivileged, who can be disproportionately affected by both indoor and outdoor pollution.

 paint cans

Photo courtesy of Bree Bailey, licensed under Creative Commons.

So in light of this skepticism, why have I decided to shell out for low- or non-VOC products? Well, one reason is rather prosaic, I’m afraid: The last time we painted, our cats developed nasty cases of diarrhea, even though we kept them out of the area and were careful about ventilation. Was this due to the VOCs? We’re not sure, but we’d sure like to avoid a repeat, if possible! Another is that the paints generally seem to pass muster with testing organizations like Consumer Reports, and with users, who posted extensively awhile back in response to a piece in Treehugger.com about them.

The EPA has weighed in on the negative effects of VOCs, and it also appears that organizations who work to provide affordable housing are paying closer attention to indoor sources of VOCs, and taking steps to avoid them. A Google search of “affordable housing and volatile organic compounds” reveals sites chronicling such projects in several states, including New Mexico, Massachusetts, and Minnesota. Perhaps the combined efforts of these groups and small-scale consumers like me will continue to drive research into the effects of these chemicals, as well as product improvements and cost reductions. In the meantime, I’ll be thinking of you and hoping you’re enjoying an eggnog or two by the fire as we drag around our ladders, drop cloths, and cans of pricy paint. Best wishes to all HCN readers for a safe and happy holiday!

Jackie Wheeler teaches writing and environmental rhetoric at Arizona State University, where she is also the Associate Director of Writing Programs. Outside academia, she’s an avid rafter, kayaker, and horsewoman who also attempts to garden. When possible, she escapes the Phoenix metro area for an undisclosed location in Southeastern Utah.

Essays in the Just West blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.

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