Architects memo no. 113: November 2013
allergens in decorative paint
When waterborne paints first started displacing
solventborne, oil-based alkyd interior paints, they
were welcomed, not only for their fast drying and ease
of clean up and application, but also because their
odour was so much lower and more pleasant than the
smells associated with the solvents and the curing of
If you think that these days there is a greater prevalence of
allergies and asthma then you are right! Several studies1
have shown that there has been a significant increase in
these conditions since the Second World War.
As such a change has been far too rapid to be accounted
for by a change in the gene pool, interest has focused on
what environmental changes have occurred to trigger such
One of the more interesting suggestions, known as the
‘hygiene hypothesis’, is that we are simply too clean these
days. One of the sayings that I was brought up on in my
childhood was “You’ll eat a bushel of muck before you
die”. Taking the possible metaphysical aspects out of it,
the advice was to not get too precious over a little dirt
The ‘hygiene hypothesis’ suggests that in highly sterile
environments, infants’ immune systems are insufficiently
challenged, which then hinders the development of said
As interesting as this hypothesis is, it remains a hypothesis
as it has not been proven, with the indication being that,
while it may make a contribution to the problem, it is not
likely to be the full story. Other researchers explore other
areas, including indoor and outdoor air quality, along with
exposure to airborne chemicals.
As part of a larger study entitled ‘Dampness in Buildings
and Health’, a study was done to examine whether
exposure to VOCs could influence allergic airway disease.2
The study covered the use of several VOCs (including most
of the VOCs found in waterborne paints and household
cleaning materials) in the bedrooms of 400 pre-school
Only one class of solvents seemed to show any significant
association with enhanced allergic response and they were a group of solvents called propylene glycol ethers
(PGEs). This group of quite bland materials are commonly
used in hard surface cleaners and as film-forming aids in
some waterborne paint formulations.
Interestingly, PGEs have no significant allergenic
properties in themselves and are generally regarded
as being unable to cause allergic sensitisation.3
The thinking is that PGEs may have adjuvant-like
properties and reduce the immune system’s ability to
handle the real threat.
Current thinking is that more research is needed to
elucidate whether PGEs are indeed a risk factor and what
the mechanism might be.4 Nonetheless, we here at Resene
feel that it is prudent to bring this to our customers'
Typically PGEs leave a paint film relatively quickly.
Further, painting is generally a ‘once in 10 year job’ so,
unlike products such as household cleaners that are used
regularly, paints do not contribute to an ongoing indoor
air quality issue. Nonetheless, we do reinforce the need
for all rooms (and especially children’s bedrooms) to be
well ventilated during painting and for 24 hours postpainting.
For parents with further concerns, we will add specific PGE
data onto the current VOC data given on the website.
1. Burney et al 1990; Anderson et al, 2004; Latvala et al;
2. Choi et al (2010b).
3. Basketter et al, 1998; Lesmann et al, 2005; Anzai et al,
4. Kimber & Pieters 2013.
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