By David Spero, April 17, 1991
“Oil based paint is a toxic bomb in a can,” said Mitch Fine. That’s the kind of declaration you might expect to hear from an environmentalist activist’s soapbox. But Fine was sitting in the Harrison Street office of Armstrong Interior Painting, a contracting company of which he is the president. Even latex paint is toxic, Fine told the Bay Guardian. “Latex paint is oil suspended in water,” he continued, “It contains solvents like ethylene glycol, which can cause irritation to the eyes and respiratory tract, or anemia. Many paints still contain mercury and dozens of other toxics.”
Fine grew up in a painting family – his father, Howard Fine, owns Armstrong Painting and Waterproofing, one of Northern California’s largest residential painting contractors. At 35, after acquiring a law degree and a political post as comptroller of the state Democratic Party, he returned to the painting business as part of a commitment to create progressive change.
“It’s no good worrying about problems that are 300 thousand miles away if you can’t do anything to change your own back yard,” he said. “It’s all well and good to fight apartheid in South Africa, but across the Bay in East Oakland we’ve got one of the highest infant mortality rates in the world. We can try to save the rain forest, but we also have to realize that we are living in toxic environments right here.”
Fine is part of a new generation of California entrepreneurs who are setting out to prove that they can have profits without pollution and production without poison. Even in traditionally dirty industries like painting, printing, and photography, young Bay Area business people are finding ways to reduce the need for chemicals by reusing and recycling. Supported by a network of environmental groups and a few government agencies, these pathfinder companies are creating a new cutting edge of industrial change. In the painting business, Fine had a good place to start. Paint is the number one indoor pollutant, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which has also labeled indoor air pollution the top environmental problem most Americans face. Indoor pollutant levels are often 100 times as high as outdoor levels. After painting, that figure can soar to 1,000 times as high.
A john Hopkins University study found 150 different carcinogens in paints, mostly volatile organic compounds (VOCs).
Brain damage from lead and mercury in paints stunts the lives of thousands of children every year. Painters often suffer terrible health effects from the metal and carcinogenic VOCs. Ana Gainet, of the San Francisco Painters and Decorating Contractor’s Association, pointed out, “lead paint has been banned since 1974, and since 1990, mercury can no longer be used for interiors and California law has reduced allowable VOC levels.” But lead and mercury never go away, and most paint, as well as paint thinners and strippers, still contain carcinogens.
Armstrong Interior Painting, which now fluctuates in size between 3 and 10 employees, specializes in making safe places for chemically sensitive people. It is a big market: 10 to 15 percent of Americans are thought to suffer from environmental sensitivities (see Bay Guardian, 7/4/90). Armstrong has painted doctor’s offices, the San Francisco Free Clinic, and several homes, including one belonging to Debra Lynn Dadd, author of five books on non-toxic living. The company is currently painting Clinton Village Convalescent Hospital in Oakland.
Armstrong sometimes uses all natural paint from Livos in Germany, but it is expensive – almost 100 dollars a gallon. So most jobs are done with Safecoat, a partially synthetic nontoxic made by AFM Enterprises of Riverside. It runs about 28 dollars, twice the cost of latex paint. The difference translates into approximately 10 percent higher estimates. For those with chemical sensitivities, or for those who are concerned about the environment, the cost is well worth it.
Armstrong also substitutes citrus-based thinners and strippers for the traditional cancer-causing petro-chemical solvents, a slowly spreading practice among painting contractors. Beside two German companies, Coors Biotech in Colorado, the 3M Corporation in Minnesota, and Anchor Masterlith in California make citrus-based industrial solvents, including paint thinners and strippers. Fine says he sees his company as a starting point. “ I want to have an association of environmental builders – people who work with lighting, carpeting, wood – because indoors air pollution is such a big problem. Carpets, adhesives, sealants, plywood, and just about anything in a modern home that gives off VOCs.”
He also sees possibilities for changing the painting industry. “Armstrong Painting was the first to change from oil-based to latex for exterior jobs. Now everybody’s doing it. I don’t want an antagonistic relationship with the industry. I am trying to encourage chemical products to create safe products. It’s ridiculous that we have to go to Germany to plant-based paints.“
“I’d also like to create a community of businesses that are forward thinking…I think the greatest thing is to be visionary but also be doing something practical in the world.”