Earlier this year, the Healthy Building Network (HBN) recommended specifying nonylphenol ethoxylate (NPE)-free paints in addition to low- or very low volatile organic compound (VOC) paints to help protect human health and the environment. HBN is expanding this recommendation to include the broader category of chemical compounds known as alkylphenol ethoxylates (APEs), which encompass NPEs. Expanding the recommendation to include APEs will help avoid regrettable substitutions. If you have been concerned about VOCs in your paint,[1] you should be equally concerned about APEs, including NPEs. Read on to find out why and see a list of products without APEs.

Alkylphenol ethoxylates (APEs), a group of chemicals that includes nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs) and octylphenol ethoxylates (OPEs), are chemicals of concern commonly used as surfactants in acrylic paint.[2] NPEs and OPEs break down into nonylphenols and octylphenols, which are not readily biodegradable. NPEs, OPEs, and these break down products are very toxic to fish and other aquatic organisms. They are all also suspected endocrine disruptors, which interfere with hormones in the body.[3] According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), nonylphenol has “been detected in human breast milk, blood, and urine and is associated with reproductive and developmental effects in rodents.”

Example alkylphenol ethoxylates include:
     Polyethylene glycol nonylphenyl ether (CAS 9016-45-9)
     Polyethylene glycol mono(branched p-nonylphenyl) ether (CAS 127087-87-0)
     Octylphenoxy polyethoxyethanol (CAS 9036-19-5)
     For a more complete list of alkylphenols and related compounds, see:
https://commons.healthymaterials.net/chemicals/2086364.

To Select healthier paint, Healthy Building Network recommends that you:

(1.) Choose APE-free Interior Paint
Benjamin Moore and Sherwin-Williams offer APE-free paint in some of their standard product lines. There are likely other manufacturers who have eliminated APEs. Ask your favorite paint supplier if they are in this group.
 
The estimated cost per 100 square feet for APE-free paints are shown below. Cost per gallon of paint doesn’t always provide an accurate prediction of the total material cost because of variations in application. The cost provided here was calculated based on the cost per gallon, number of coats recommended, whether a primer is required, and the coverage range for a gallon of paint.
 
APE-free Interior Acrylic Latex Paints [4]
      Estimated Cost Range Comparison [5] 

      $$$$ ($35-$50 per 100 square feet)
                • Benjamin Moore’s Aura
                • Sherwin-Williams’ Emerald
                • Sherwin-Williams’ Harmony (primer and flat)

      $$$ ($20-$35 per 100 square feet)
                • Benjamin Moore’s Natura (also certified Green Seal GS-11 [6])
             
  • Benjamin Moore’s Regal Select
                • Sherwin-Williams’ SuperPaint (flat, velvet, and satin)

​      $$ ($15-$20 per 100 square feet)
                •Benjamin Moore’s ben®  

(2.) Specify colorants that do not add VOCs to paints
These colorants are standard for each of the APE-free paints listed above.

Current Market Availability:
The above products were determined to be APE-free from Health Product Declarations (HPDs),[7] manufacturer engagement, and the GS-11 database. The paint industry is rapidly changing its use of surfactants, and additional products may already be on the market.

Some of the Benjamin Moore paints have transparency documents: HPDs or Declare labels. These documents provide additional information on the products’ content and associated health hazards and are good steps toward full disclosure of product contents. Look for public HPDs with all the content characterized, screened, and identified to 100 ppm. Prefer those products whose public content disclosure has been verified by a third party.

The availability of APE-free options in lower cost paints is a clear signal that major manufacturers in the U.S. are retooling production to use less toxic surfactants across their product lines. Home Depot is in the process of phasing out APEs from their latex water-based paints sold in the U.S. and Canada. Globally, many paint ecolabel programs prohibit APEs, but the only U.S. product certification that completely prohibits APEs is Green Seal. Their GS-11 standard, used in the U.S. and abroad, has prohibited the use of APE surfactants since 2010. However, Benjamin Moore’s Natura is currently the only Green Seal GS-11 certified interior acrylic latex paint sold in the U.S. If we all start specifying APE-free paints, manufacturers will continue to respond and provide healthier, affordable options.


Note: Originally published on January 30, 2018, as “It’s Not Just About VOCs: Select NPE-free Paint, Too”, this blog was updated April 12, 2018 to reflect HBN’s broader recommendation to avoid not just NPEs, but the larger group of APEs. It was also adjusted February 11, 2019 to update the hazard associations and remove references to tools that are no longer available.


Footnotes

[1] VOCs released from the curing of wet applied products may not cause smog to form, but can pollute indoor air and harm human health in many ways. Health impacts range from headaches and dizziness to cancer and reproductive toxicity; most have not been fully studied. 
 
[2] The U.S. EPA explains, “NPEs are surface active agents (surfactants) that are part of the broader category of surfactants known as alkylphenol ethoxylates (APEs). NPEs represent approximately 80% to 85% of the volume of APEs.”
 
[3] Nonylphenol ethoxylates and their degradation products, nonylphenols, are on the EU Candidate List of Substances of Very High Concern due to endocrine disrupting properties (https://echa.europa.eu/candidate-list-table). Nonylphenol ethoxylates and octylphenol ethoxylates and their degradation products, nonylphenols and octylphenols, are on the ChemSec SIN List for endocrine disruption (https://sinlist.chemsec.org/) and on The Endocrine Disruption Exchange for potential endocrine disruption (https://endocrinedisruption.org/interactive-tools/tedx-list-of-potential-endocrine-disruptors/search-the-tedx-list).
 
[4] All of these Benjamin Moore paints are stated to be “Zero VOC according to EPA Method 24.” Sherwin-Williams (SW) says its Harmony Interior Acrylic Latex is a “zero VOC formula.” SW reports that the other paints contain less than 50 grams per liter VOCs (less exempt solvents).
 
[5] Cost per gallon was obtained from the manufacturer website and/or stores. Per the product literature, Sherwin-Williams’ Harmony is the only paint on this list that requires a primer, and the cost of the primer is included in the cost per 100 square feet for this product. Note that costs may vary given project size and locale.
 
[6] Green Seal-11 (GS-11) is a standard and certification that requires paints and coatings meet certain environmental, health, and performance characteristics. See the Paint Hazard Spectrum on HomeFree for additional information.

[7] Health Product Declaration (HPD) - The HPD standard provides a framework for manufacturers to inventory and disclose the contents of their products and any associated human and environmental hazards. Through the standardized HPD format, manufacturers provide information on both intentional content and impurities within the product. The framework is maintained and updated by the Health Product Declaration Collaborative. Public HPDs can be found in the HPD Repository.