My wife is chemically sensitive. What's the best way to get rid of stubborn paint odors in our home?

Asked by Andy Doyle, El Cerrito, CA

My wife is extremely chemically sensitive. I painted several rooms in our house over three months ago. One room had a perfume smell that wouldn't go away no matter what we did. A painter friend of mine convinced me to use Bulls Eye 1-2-3 as a primer to cover up the smell. Against my instincts we used it and then painted it over with a no-VOC primer and two coats of no-VOC paint. Now my wife can't even go into the room! What can I do?


Steve Rush

Answered by Steve Rush

Sherman Oaks, CA

Rush Quality Environments

May 24, 2007

You need to use a different product and your wife needs to stay out of the house for a while after you've applied it.

Bulls Eye 1-2-3 is a water-based primer. It is excellent for many uses, but it is "breathable," which means it allows the fumes or VOCs under it to escape.

  • Your wife reacted to these lingering fumes from previous layers of paint and to the Bulls Eye 1-2-3 offgassing.
  • It is also likely that the no-VOC paint that you used contained glycols.
  • These chemicals are not considered VOCs by the definition used in some states, but they offgas very slowly and for a long time, so chemically sensitive people sometimes react even more strongly to glycols than to VOCs.

The same company, Zinsser, also makes B-I-N Primer, a product that is better for your purposes. It is a pigmented shellac that uses alcohol as the solvent. It is not breathable, so it seals in old finishes and the gases they give off.

  • To use B-I-N Primer properly for very sensitive people, start by applying one coat over the old paint.
  • Allow it to dry for 10 days, then apply another coat.
  • Let the second coat dry for an additional 10 days, then apply the finish coat.
  • Depending on your wife's sensitivity level she may need to stay out of the house for all or part of this time. B-I-N Primer has a very strong odor until it dries thoroughly—but once it does dry, the fumes are gone. No lingering.

Even though you are not chemically sensitive, it is very important to protect yourself while doing the work.

If you live in a hot, wet climate, do not use B-I-N Primer on the interior side of an exterior wall. Because the primer is not breathable, moisture may get trapped inside the wall cavity, leading to condensation and mold growth.

Now for the finish coat. Many traditional green paints will not work in this situation because they do not adhere well to a nonbreathable primer.

Another approach is to be choosy about where you buy the paint. Green supply houses usually carry at least one brand of paint that is truly no-VOC, meaning that it does not contain glycols. Ask an employee to help you find the brand that will be best for your indoor air quality. Mention that your wife is chemically sensitive and that you are using an alcohol-based primer that dries to a flat sheen.


For more information:

For more green painting tips, read "Paint Like A Green Pro."

Tagged In: home air quality, low voc paint

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