You bought a new house and can’t wait to slather a modern hue on the dated kitchen walls. Or perhaps that ballet pink room you painted for your daughter when she was 3 no longer suits her as a teenager.

But experts say the chemicals in some paints can pose potential health problems, especially for children, the sick and elderly. So choose your paint carefully, and be smart about how you apply it.

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Invisible threat

The two big health threats in paint are volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and emissions. VOCs are chemicals used to manufacture many household materials, including furniture, carpeting, pesticides and paint. And as anyone who has sniffed a freshly painted room can tell you, the paint emissions or “off-gasses” (which can contain these harmful VOCs) may linger in the house for several days after your paint brushes and rollers are cleaned and packed away.

“VOCs are more of a concern generally when talking about human health and the paint emissions,” says Brad Fleckner, an indoor air quality program manager at UL Environment. “The health effects can be as simple as an allergic reaction, such as sneezing or coughing, but also more serious, such as asthma.”

Some VOCs have also been linked to cancer, especially for people who are exposed to them over a long period, experts say. A 2002 National Cancer Institute study revealed that men and women who work in the paint industry had a “significantly increased risk” of cancer. Paint manufacturers use combinations of up to 15,000 chemicals used in various paints, with the more dangerous chemicals including benzene, chloroform and dichloromethane, according to a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services report. Benzene is known to cause leukemia in humans, the report noted, and several other paint chemicals are suspected of causing cancer as well.

When inhaled, solvents like benzene, which are added to paint to allow it to spread easily, can be absorbed into the blood stream. Some paints also contain toxic fungicides to halt mildew growth, along with biocides, which are used to extend the product’s shelf life.

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Using eco-friendly paints

Fortunately, major paint manufacturers are responding to health concerns by putting more environmentally friendly paints on store shelves. However, Fleckner warns DIY painters should be wary of products not carrying third party certification such as UL’s GREENGUARD Gold Certification label. (See a list of tested and currently certified paints on their website).

States like California, which have special environmental regulations for sustainable (green) building, have clamped down on VOCs and emissions. The GREENGUARD Certification program goes further, however, with stringent testing of VOCs and emissions on paints. When testing, UL staff analyze the chemicals used in the paint and also measure emissions and air quality over a period of time in a freshly painted, sealed room.”

“We look at over 350 chemicals,” says Fleckner. “UL observes California’s chemicals restrictions and then adds additional criteria.”

Painting safety tips

Fleckner and other experts also recommend:

  • Keep the air moving. Paint in areas that have good air circulation. If you need to, use window fans to help the paint dry sooner and get rid of emissions. Make sure to leave the windows and doors open.
  • Protect your eyes. Use eye goggles or safety glasses to reduce the risk of paint splashing in your eyes.
  • Don’t breathe it in. Wear a breathing mask when sanding, or a solvent respirator when working with solvent-based products.
  • Create a kid-free zone. Keep children and pets out of the painting area.
  • Stick with water-based paints. These paints generally pose fewer health risks than oil-based, solvent paints. Oil based paints, stains, and products, typically contain more solvents and can emit higher amounts of gases. It’s safer to use these products outdoors or in areas where there is excellent ventilation. Solvents are also highly flammable.
  • Read labels carefully. The label on that can of paint contains some valuable information, including drying times, warning labels and other important information. Always know what you’re working with.

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Ronald Agrella is a freelance writer and former editor of The Boston Globe’s Boston.com.