There are more than three million asthmatics in the UK (one in eight children and one in 13 adults), and between 100 and 150 million sufferers in the world. Norwich Union insurance reports that, over the past quarter-century, asthma in the UK has increased six-fold amongst children and three- to four-fold amongst adults.
Norwich Union points to two 'environmental bad guys' - pollution and bad diet - linked with asthma. Most of us have very little control over environmental pollution, but sometimes we actually introduce dangerous pollutants into our homes.
Most asthmatics are highly sensitive to paint fumes, leading to wheeziness or full-blown serious asthma attacks. Yet it's not just asthmatics who suffer from the effects of the 300 million litres of paints sold in the UK each year, and their associated products. There are many other serious health risks.
With good reason, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rates paint within its Top Five environmental hazards, and has produced research that shows VOC (volatile organic compound) levels indoors while paint is drying are 1000 times higher than outdoors. The World Health Organization (WHO) highlights the dangers faced by people who work with paint. It reports that painters have a 20% increased risk of a range of cancers and a 40% increased risk of lung cancer, in particular.
The WHO is also concerned about the long-term health effects of 'off gassing', the release of toxic vapours over the life of the paint in your home. And in Denmark, specialists have identified a neurological condition brought on by long-term exposure to paint solvents- 'painter's dementia'.
In general, it is recognized that children and older people are particularly vulnerable to solvent vapours. When added to headaches, other allergic reactions, skin problems, heart stressing and effects on the reproductive systems, conventional paint is something you should think hard about before inviting into your home.
The good news is that you don't have to expose yourself and your family to dangers posed by conventional solvent and water-based paints. There's an increasing range of natural and eco paints, available easily from specialist suppliers. Eco-friendly paints, such as the ranges from Earthborn and Biofa, are made from safe, natural ingredients.
As you'd expect, natural paints contain little or no synthetic constituents. Some eco paints are made from by-products of the food industry, including linseed oil and casein. So it's hardly surprising when some people report their paint has a delicate aroma of lavender or wood oils, rather than the noxious fumes they've come to expect.
Natural paints release no toxic fumes to impact on your family's health. Nor do these kinds of environmentally friendly paints leave toxic material on their surface after drying, as do numerous conventional types. What's more, because many natural paints are 100% biodegradable, some are even safe enough to dispose of on your compost heap!
If you're thinking that there must be a downside to eco-paints, it's very hard to find. Allergy-free paints are a real alternative to those you find in your local DIY superstore. Easy to work with, available in a wide range of fashionable colours (some types enable you to safely and easily mix shades yourself) and finishes, they won't impact on your decorating style or creative ambitions.
And, what's more, the price is comparable to mainstream decorative brands. There really is little reason today to expose your family to the numerous serious health risks associated with conventional paints.
About the author: Karoly Nunhofer is owner of IEKO, a Sussex-based company that specialises in supplying families and professionals with natural paints and decorative finishes.