Q: I cannot live in my house due to offgassing from paints and primer applied over a year ago. They STATE they used Dunn Edwards primer. Painted with Behr Ultra Premium Satin, latex, and semi gloss latex. They said they had to use oil base to cover the wooden doors in the house. The house was painted during very cold wet days and probably did not completely dry. The off gassing and odor was terrible. The air testing shows ACETONE. They stated they used Kilz odorless oil base primer the second time. The painters did not let the KILZ DRY before applying the paint. They used Dunn Edwards' latex eggshell "Enso" (no voc) and semi gloss. The odor & off gassing was contained for about 7 days & then returned.
—Asked by Bonnie Parker, Tucson, AZ
A: I'm sorry to hear of your troubling experience. Although it is quite common, fortunately, there are solutions.
We have spoken to many customers who complain of the exact same problem with different paints and finishes. Whether you are chemically sensitive or not, such experiences are a nightmare and should be considered a crime against your personal health.
There are two main aspects to this problem: first, the type of paint and second, the application.
Most paint manufacturers will not accept responsibility for an application over someone else's primer—especially if its water-based over oil-based or vice-versa. The painters should have known better.
Second, applying paint over primer before the primer has fully dried or cured, prevents good adhesion and keeps the second coat from fully drying as well. This is probably why the odors have continued so long. The top coat may have skinned over and feels dry, but the moisture from the top coat may have re-activated the primer underneath. Also, water-based products dry very quickly compared to oil-based products. If an oil-based primer was not properly cured due to the cold damp weather, the addition of a water-based product can actually slow down the drying or curing process making the off-gassing continue even longer.
Accelerating the off-gassing
I am sure you have already tried to accelerate the off-gassing with ventilation, heat, fans, etc. Your only solution may be to sand off the paint and primer and start over. I know that's not what you want to hear, but there are few remedies to this problem.
One option that we have used which works in many cases is to use an encapsulating sealer. AFM Safecoat manufactures a number of non-toxic completely safe sealers that block off-gassing of most finishes. (You can read about them on our Non-Toxic Paints & Coatings Category page.) We have had good success with their Transitional Primer used in conjunction with their Zero VOC Paint. Their Hard Seal product also works well. This should be tested in a small confined area to make sure of its results.
Odorless paint isn't benign
Third, just because something is "odorless" or low VOC does not mean it will not off-gas toxic chemicals. Some manufacturers use masking agents to hide the nasty odors, but they may still contain hazardous ingredients that you can smell. (See our article on VOC's and Your Health).
Acetone, for example, happens to be one of those unregulated solvents. It's not classified as a VOC, because it does not increase outdoor air pollution. That's right. It is hazardous yet not a VOC. Our government does not even require the labeling of this ingredient, even though it is clearly harmful to your health. There are thousands of such chemicals used by paint manufactures that are considered "unknown" hazards which have not been tested on humans for safety, yet they are still allowed to be used.
Same is true for chemicals that are "proprietary ingredients" which are trade secrets and don't have to be disclosed to the public. In both cases, these chemicals may off-gas for years.
Because there have been so many different paints and primers used at various times in your home, it might be best to call us first before doing anything else, just so we can advise you on an approach that takes into consideration all the relevant factors.