Nothin’ But Blue Sky

IMG_6130What to do with a low-ceilinged, windowless basement room? Give it to the toddler, of course…

But then, it just screams for some cheer. When my friend Lisa showed me the charming mural she had painted on her son’s wall in honor of his adoption, it was inspiring. She told me how she made the cute and life-like clouds using nothing more than a sea sponge and some water-based tempera paint.

I could do that, I thought. So sometime in my feverish, flu-like state, after days of uselessly prowling the house over the holidays, I determined to accomplish some little thing, at least.

The most manageable (and thoughtless) project on my list was introducing a little whimsy to the “playroom.” It mainly functions as a toy storage area these days, given Maya’s inability to be in the basement by her lonesome. But I have hopes, my friends, that someday she will be capable of independent play, and so this is for that day.

IMG_6161First, because it’s me and this blog and all, I must point out what you know already: paint is notoriously toxic. This is a particular concern in a poorly ventilated basement. As the wonderful Diane MacEachern of Big Green Purse (another Takoma Park green blogger!), writes:

Conventional paint contains many volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, that “outgas” and escape into the air after they are applied. Indoors, these VOCs cause headaches, nausea, achey bones, and general discomfort. Outdoors, they contribute to smog and air pollution.

And they smell nasty, which can’t be good. The VOCs include chemicals like terpenes, formaldehyde, acrolein, phthalates, glycol, toluene, methylene chloride, styrene, trichloroethylene, xylenes, and benzene, among others. Any one of these is enough to make me gag, personally.

A terrific new guide to building a non-toxic nursery, out just today from our friends at Healthy Child, Healthy World, provides very helpful information about paint types suitable for a nursery or other rooms on p. 16 of their new, interactive ebook and less toxic options. They also have 7 helpful tips for healthier painting. Basically, the best way to go is real zero-VOC paints (i.e., ones that completely and verifiably lack toxics or solvents), or with natural, organic or milk-based paints.

Our local hardware store only stocks the zero-VOC kind, but they at least have a really good brand — Mythic, which I have used on several rooms in our house with excellent results. Mythic is a “real” zero-VOC paint, with no toxics like lead or other known toxins in it, and is also solvent free and goes on beautifully.

In fact, it’s so clean, it doesn’t need a warning label like most paints. (Lullaby Paints appears to be another great option, but I have not used them myself.) Even using Mythic, I set up a fan to speed the paint drying process, open a window when possible, and do not use the room for at least several days.

Before painting, you should also be aware that many, if not most, paints labeled “zero-VOC” can be problematic, because the colorants still contain VOCs and once they are added, then the paint is “zero-VOC” no longer. So I also always take the step of asking the hardware store folks if they actually mixed my paint with Mythic colorants.

In fact, the Federal Trade Commission just sued Sherwin Williams over false claims on this issue, and won, sort of. The companies now at least have to say, somewhere, that the zero-VOC claim applies only to the base paint and that the VOC levels can be impacted by the dyes. From The Consumerist:

In truth and in fact, in numerous instances, Pure Performance paints do not contain zero VOCs after color is added,” alleged the FTC.

To settle these claims by the agency, both paint companies are prohibited from claiming their paints contain “zero VOCs,” unless, after tinting, they have a VOC level of zero grams per liter.

The companies can continue claiming “zero VOC” if they “clearly and prominently disclose” that the “zero VOC” statement applies only to the base paint, and that depending on the consumer’s color choice, the VOC level may rise.

I am sad to say that I find this agreement a bit ridiculous from a public health standpoint. I wish I shared the FTC’s apparent deep faith in the willingness of consumers to read the fine print on the can about colorants — before the paint is mixed in the store.

I think companies will likely make these disclosures on that can, and that a vast majority of consumers will nonetheless still not realize that the zero-VOC paint they just paid more for has been significantly impacted by VOCs in the dyes. Seems to me that the real solution is to require companies that want to advertise “zero-VOC” for paints produce colorants that keep that promise. But hey, what do I know?

IMG_6159At any rate, back to the fun part. For the playroom, I first painted one wall and a strip of a wall in a bright, sunny yellow. One coat was enough to do it. Then, I covered the ceiling in a light blue paint left over from a sample I considered using for Maya’s upstairs room (Ocean Falls was the color). (Yes, her bedroom is blue. And lovely.)

I didn’t bother taping for the ceiling, as the indistinct edges add to the effect. Mythic is also forgiving; a wet sponge used soon after painting will clean up any messes.

Then, using the sea sponge and a pool of paint in the pan, I painted swirls in large circles across the ceiling with a slightly darker blue, called Peace River.

IMG_6142Last, I added white clouds around the lights and all over the ceiling in various sizes using the sponge dipped in Crayola white tempera paint. This can also be easily fixed with a wet sponge while the paint remains wet. I tried to leave a little extra paint in some places for a slight texture.

IMG_6140I was pleased with the result, which adds a dreamy quality to a small, boxy room. And Maya likes it too!

8 thoughts on “Nothin’ But Blue Sky

  1. Thanks so much for getting back to me. Hope you are feeling better! Ha ha, I didn’t catch the “tempura” typo. I’m glad to know this because I used this a ton with my students. But I guess I used a ton of stuff with my students that I wouldn’t now since I know better. Wish I could go back in time. And knowing the things that were in use in my classroom, it scares the bejeebers out of me that in a few short years my son will be off to school. *Sigh* Oh what a world. I didn’t even think of checking MSDS sheets for toxic ingredients! I will do that from now on! Thanks! Also another note, I’m so mad at IKEA! After the comment about the adorable little circus tent, I went tearing upstairs to check the tags of the tunnel and tent my son has from there. I’m such a tag checker but it didn’t even cross my mind to check this! I almost vomited. He spends so much time in it!! Since he was 6 months old and mouthing on it! So I sent an email to them asking about what would have been used if anything. That was on February 4th and still no reply. And since there is no phone number to call with a specific product question, I guess his beloved tunnel will go in a bag in the basement until I know the answer. So much for customer service!

    • Hi Naomi,

      Sorry to hear you got caught up in the toxic tent from Ikea as well —

      And yup, on the circus tent ours is gone as well. I actually just chucked it after I considered that Maya likes to close the front gate, and that inside the tent, the air flow is so restricted. I also washed the stuffies that were living inside.

      I can understand, actually, why a big company might want to use FRs on something so flammable — I shudder to think about a cigarette or something landing on something like that tent with a child inside it. On the other hand, we don’t smoke and wouldn’t pose a risk, so it seems unneeded in our house (and I’m sure yours!).

      All we can do is what we can do — please let me know if they get back to you — hugs, Laura
      We all just do what we can!

  2. Is that the Ikea circus tent in the picture at the far righ?. I bought it for my son, but then saw the dreaded tag and thought “brominated flame retardants.” My son is only 9 months, so using it has not been an issue yet. Do you have any thoughts on its safety?

    I really appreciate the thought and care you put into this blog.

    • Yes! And ick. I saw the tag as well so I opened it and left it out in the rain and outdoors for several weeks, draped over our back porch. No idea whether that fixed it, but since it’s thin nylon, I hoped so. She doesn’t play in it much, is all I can really say. Now, as I write this, it makes me want to dump it! This is always so hard, as it’s pretty cute and cheap and the right size and all… But still. Isn’t that the thought process? Thanks so much for the sharp eye– it keeps me on my toes and makes me feel like we are watching out for each other in this imperfect world. All best, Laura

  3. Thank you for the smile – and information. Love it. I have an entire house with blue ceilings! – bathroom has clouds (it really helps with low ceilings and long winter days – )

    Paint – argh – any readers out there, avoid Behr. Hubby bought their no voc paint and it reeked of ammonia, store would not take it back. Those labels and false promises are making problems.
    We are considering milk paint –

  4. So very pretty! I really want a friend of mine to come paint a mural in my son’s room soon. I was wondering what paint would be safe. So the tempura paint in the picture is okay? How about letting a child paint with it? Is it a good choice for that or are there better options out there?

    • Hi Naomi! Great question! Just fyi to start, I initially wrote “tempura” paint– but it’s actually tempera, because it’s not a fried Japanese food. My error! LOL.
      I am researching this question. I do think tempera is ok — it’s usually made of starch and egg, with dyes, and I looked at the Crayola Material Safety Data Sheet for the paint and didn’t see any reason for concern. Tempera white paints were made historically with lead, but the MSDS specifically covers white and claims no toxicity concerns are there. It also has no odor, basically, and is in widespread use in schools. Despite this, it may not be the greenest choice, so I’m still researching — will keep you posted! All best, Laura

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