Paint Restrictions

Colin Mitchell-Rose

In April 2004 the EU published a directive limiting the emissions of VOCs from various types of decorative paints. These are to come in over two phases commencing January 2007 and January 2010. VOCs are volatile organic compounds which can most simply be thought of as the solvents, such as white spirits, which are used in oil-based paints. There are also very small amounts of VOCs used in emulsion paints to help with fi lm-formation. These VOCs cause harmful ozone-formation. (Although essential in the upper atmosphere, ozone formed down here can cause ill-health in humans and damage to vegetation and crops.) To enable consumers to make an informed choice, all paint tins carry a label on the back stating the approximate VOC content of the paint. Decorative paints are made up of three components; pigments, binders and solvents. The pigments provide the colour and covering power (opacity) and are held together and bound to the substrate by the binder. In traditional paints, this binder would usually have been linseed oil. To enable the gooey mixture of pigments and binder to be applied to a surface, the paste has to be diluted down with a solvent that would thin it enough to enable it to be brushed on, but then evaporate away to leave the pigment/binder mixture to dry as a thin film.

Although paints are not the largest source of VOCs, (transport produces much greater quantities), the EU has targeted them as an easily controllable source. The EU produces 3.3 million tonnes of paints annually of which one-third are solvent-based and two-thirds are water-based. These produce over 0.5 million tonnes of VOCs. The UK uses proportionally less solvent-based paints but still emits 40,000 tonnes of VOCs annually.

The approach of the EU is to legislate to reduce the VOC content of various types of paints used in the decorative sector which are sold in the EU. This can be done by using paint with a higher solids content that contains proportionally less solvent, or replacing the VOC solvent with a non-VOC solvent, usually water, to make an emulsion paint.

Unfortunately, neither of these approaches provides a complete answer and the EU has recognised that certain paints, such as gloss paint and specialist primers, cannot be modified in this way without severely affecting their performance, which could lead to a greater environmental impact. Different levels of VOC have been set for solvent-based and water-based paints. Often the level for the solvent paints is set so low that they are effectively banned and the water-based one is the only alternative.

For the majority of decorative paints, this will speed up the move from traditional oil-based paints to modern water-based ones, which is already taking place. Some paints which are often used by conservationists will no longer be allowed. Areas of particular concern include the following:

  • Flat oil paint and eggshell oil paints will be effectively banned from use on walls. They may however still be used on ‘trim’ areas such as woodwork. This is because the volume used on these areas is much smaller than on walls.
  • Oil gloss paints will continue to be allowed for painting ‘trim’ areas but manufacturers will probably come under pressure to reformulate them in the near future.
  • Many oil-based varnishes will not meet the new criteria. Either high solids versions or water-borne ones will have to be used.
  • There is still a question mark over oil- and water-based scumble glazes that are used in graining and other paint effects as there is an argument that they are sold as intermediates that are modified by the painter before being used.
  • Traditional white lead paints will not be affected as they have such a high solids content that they contain very little solvent (typically less that ten per cent compared with 50 per cent for modern gloss paint). They will continue to be controlled by present regulations.

A complete list of what types of paints are affected and the dates the new limits will come into effect will be published when the new regulations are confirmed by the UK.

The Building Conservation Directory, 2004


The late COLIN MITCHELL-ROSE spent four years in the Army before joining family firm Craig and Rose in 1973. Initially employed as a chemist in the laboratory, at the time of writing this article he was Technical Director of the company.

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