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Waterborne Paint is the Future: Transition From Solvents Today

July 2, 2019

The Problem with Solvents

Volatile organic compounds, otherwise known as VOCs, are numerous, varied, and ubiquitous. The EPA classifies VOCs as any volatile compound of carbon (both man made and natural occurring) unless it appears on a list of compounds that have been specifically exempted. VOCs in paints are solvents that get released into the air as the paint dries. In the auto body refinishing industry, the most commonly used paints are solvent-based. VOCs emissions data are tracked by the National Emissions Inventory (NEI).

Perhaps a bigger problem component of solvent-based paint is hazardous air pollutants, known as HAPs.  HAPs are hazardous to human health and the environment all on their own.  Some are known to cause cancer, some are suspected of causing cancer, some can cause genes to mutate or mimic hormones.  A number of HAPs are two-for-ones, as they are also VOCs, thus contributing to smog along with their other impacts.

The biggest indicator that paint emits VOCs is the odor it emits, otherwise known as off-gassing.  Off-gassing can carry on for months and even years after the paint has been applied, with concentrations higher in indoor air than outdoor air. EPA’s Office of Research and Development’s found levels of about a dozen common organic pollutants to be 2 to 5 times higher inside homes than outside, regardless of whether the homes were located in rural or highly industrial areas. During and for several hours immediately after activities involving VOCs, such as paint stripping, levels may be 1,000 times background outdoor levels. Typically, solvent-based basecoats emit 5 to 7 lbs. of VOC per gallon of paint.

Health Risks

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has linked VOCs to many medical conditions, especially asthma. When inhaled, VOCs can contribute to several health problems, including irritation to your airways, headaches, nausea, and even damage to the liver, kidneys, or central nervous system. The long-term effects are less certain, but according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, some VOCs are suspected carcinogens. The World Health Organization (WHO) has reported a 20%-40% increased risk of certain types of cancer (in particular lung cancer) for those who regularly work or come into contact with paint. As with other pollutants and health conditions, the severity will depend on many factors including level of exposure, length of time exposed and susceptibility of the individual.

Environmental Impact

VOCs play a significant role in the formation of ground-level ozone and fine particulate matter. 40 percent of cosmetics, soaps and paints disperse into the air to form the harmful pollutants – the most toxic component of the form of pollution commonly known as smog. One study by C.E.P.E. attributes paints and varnishes to causing as much as five percent of all VOCs emissions. Unlike ozone in the upper atmosphere that occurs naturally and is beneficial because of its protective qualities, ozone at Earth’s surface can have harmful effects on both humans and the environment. Exposure to ozone is associated with a wide variety of human health effects, agricultural crop loss, and damage to forests and ecosystems. The automotive industry releases about 210,000 tons of ozone-producing solvents into the atmosphere each year, with the manufacture and application of paint accounting for about 32% of all VOC emissions.

The Benefits of Waterborne Paint

So at this point, it is probably apparent that solvent paints are harmful, but many are likely wondering what they can do about it. Luckily, there is an alternative that nearly 64% of collision repair shops are already using: waterborne paint. Waterborne paints are a practical, environmentally friendly alternative to solvent-based paint. And transitioning doesn’t have to be difficult.

“It wasn’t a difficult decision. The common thought is that it’s difficult to make the switch – it’s not. Or people think that it’s too expensive to switch – it’s not.” 
Lisa Thompson, President, Heitzman Body & Paint

Below are 3 waterborne benefits that may help in deciding whether to transition or not.

Benefit 1: Avoid Future Regulations and Costs!

As many already know, states are beginning to crackdown on VOC and HAP emissions. In particular, VOC emissions in the auto body industry are regulated under the “National Volatile Organic Compound Emission Standards for Automotive Refinish Coating”, also known as the “National Rule”. Currently, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is anticipating revision of the National Rule, which will further restrict the allowable VOC emissions of the auto body industry in the U.S. And in high-smog states like California, regulations requiring low-VOCs technologies have been in place for years, with many other states considering similar laws. Some HAPs are regulated under the EPA’s 6H NESHAP rule, which requires extra documentation and painter training. When these laws are inevitably passed, it will be costly and mandatory for all businesses to make the switch. So starting to make the transition sooner rather then later may save many businesses both time and money.

Benefit 2: Keep Your Employees Safe!

While waterborne is not completely free of harmful chemicals, it is a lot safer then solvent. In fact, VOC exposure when painting with waterborne paints can be up to 56 times lower. Painters, other shop employees and customers all enjoy the absence of strong solvent smell. Using waterborne and proper personal protective equipment (PPE) can eliminate both acute and chronic overexposure issues for painters such as asthma and kidney, liver and central nervous system damage.

Benefit 3: Improve Your Bottom Line!

Waterborne paint tends to have higher pigmentation then solvent paints, which improves the base coats ability to hide what is underneath. A job that requires 3-4 coats of solvent-based paint will only need two coats of waterborne. There is also virtually unanimous consensus that waterborne paints provide a superior color match and have better metallic lay-down on autobody surfaces. Many waterborne paints do not require mixing systems, only a slight shake before straining. Perhaps most important for a business, shops report that with the right drying systems their throughput has increased by as much as 20%. Waterborne paints are significantly less flammable, and some shops have been able to reduce their insurance premiums because of this.

Resources to Transition:

Spray Efficiency Training’s 2019

Learn about and practice technique refinements that can reduce paint overspray and save money. 6H compliant training. To sign your organization up for a spray efficiency training, or to see previous examples of training’s, message Ken Grimm. 

You can view our webpage: WATERBORNE AUTOMOTIVE COATINGS & SAFER PRACTICES

Waterborne Coatings Fact Sheet – English or Spanish

Water-based Gun Cleaning Fact Sheet – English or Spanish

Cleaners and Degreasers Fact Sheet – safer and healthier choices.

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