Coatings manufacturers in Europe, which are already having to comply with a series of new safety and environmental regulations, are now being confronted with the likelihood of further legal restrictions aimed at exerting more control over the quality of air in buildings.
Companies in coatings and other sectors using solvents are currently dealing with limits on emissions of VOCs. These are contained in two EU directives, which have been incorporated in the legislation of the EU's 27 member states.
One curbs emissions of VOCs from industrial facilities. The other, called the Decopaint directive, which was approved in 2004, limits the use of organic solvents in decorative paints and varnishes, and in vehicle refinishing products.
Coatings producers are also in the early stages of complying with the EU's REACH scheme for the registration, evaluation and authorization of chemicals. This has just started a six-month phase for the pre-registration of some 30,000 substances, a large proportion of which are used in coatings.
The REACH registration dossiers for some of the chemicals, which will be based on information from their producers or importers and from their downstream users, will have to contain data on their possible risk to human health in environments like the inside of buildings.
Those substances considered to be of high concern because they are carcinogenic, mutagenic and toxic to reproduction (CMR), or persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic (PBT) or are endocrine disruptors will have to go through a lengthy process of authorization. Applicants for authorization will have to show that there are no suitable safer alternatives.
However doubts are now being raised about the ability of REACH and the VOC directives to combat all the dangers of poor air quality in buildings, especially in offices and home. This comes amidst growing concerns among regulators, politicians and NGOs, including consumer groups, about the potential long-term harm of some pollutants in interior air.
REACH, whose deadlines for the registration of substances stretches over an 11-year period to 2018, is regarded by critics as taking too long to come fully into effect to deal with the threats of issues like air pollution.
"NGOs are being quite active in targeting chemicals in general but especially those that expose consumers to possible risks from low quality air," said Jacques Warnon, technical director at the European Council of the Paint, Printing Ink and Artists' Colours Industry (CEPE).
"They claim that more specific legislation may be required which can be implemented more quickly than REACH," he continued. "But we believe that REACH adequately covers all the potential dangers from air pollutants inside buildings. Companies registering chemicals have to assess any risk from substances, including those which may be emitted from articles or finished products."
Global warming and the need to reduce energy consumption in order to curb emissions of carbon dioxide has become the main cause of concern about interior air quality.
"It is argued that in order to cut down use of energy, buildings and homes will not be properly ventilated because windows and doors will be kept closed to keep either the cold or the heat out," said Michael Bross, head of public relations at Verband der Deutschen Lackindustrie (VdL), the German paint industry association.
"Volatile organic substances and other possibly dangerous substances will then accumulate in the air of the buildings, which over a long period could be harmful for human health," he added.
Among the first measures to be taken by EU legislators to improve interior air quality is likely to be a tightening up of the two VOC directives, especially the one on Decopaint, which comes fully into effect in 2010.
In two years the solvent content of solventborne matt paints for interior walls and ceilings will have to cut by more than 90% to 30 grams per litre (g/l). Even the solvent content of waterborne paints for similar applications will have to be reduced by over half to 75 g/l.
The solvent content of glossy paints for interior walls and ceilings will have to be reduced by 75% to 100 g/l for solventborne coatings and by a third for waterborne ones.
"There is now a lot of talk in Brussels in and around the European Commission, the EU executive, about the scope for making the VOC directives more restrictive," said a coatings industry executive. "The Commission seems to think that the controls in the existing directive are not and will not cause the coatings industry serious problems so further limits would be manageable for coatings companies."
The Commission has already taken advantage of a provision in the Decopaint directive for a review of the legislation. It has hired a firm of German consultants to investigate possible improvements to the directive's regulations.
The EU is considered to have room to give the Decopaint directive greater bite because of the relatively large amounts of solvents still being allowed after 2010 in products like gloss paints.
However it is more likely that any new legislation will focus on types of solvents and on other organic VOCs rather than limits on quantities. This could particularly be the case with solvents comprising or containing aromatic substances.
An advisory scientific committee of the European Commission pinpointed in a report last year on indoor air quality a number of potentially dangerous chemicals, including benzene, naphthalene and formaldehyde.
Moves are already being made also against non-VOC substances-such as off gas from coatings and other products-as part of a comprehensive review of risks from chemicals and materials used in the construction sector. This is being done under another piece of legislation, the Construction Products Directive (CPD).
"When it was drawn up the CPD was not meant to apply to coatings," said Bross. "But the German federal government has set up a committee which is examining, under the provisions of the CPD, products used in construction which could be harmful to health. Coatings are being included within its remit. The Commission apparently thinks the work of this committee is a good idea and a similar exercise could be done to cover the whole of the EU."
The Commission is in fact planning to issue a Green Paper, or discussion document, on interior air quality at the end of next year. A possible outcome of that could be the drafting of legislation to combat a broad range of indoor air pollutants, including chemicals in coatings.