However these concerns about air quality, stemming from a rising incidence of respiratory disease, are also raising anxieties among producers of coatings and related products. They are generating health and environmental regulations at the European Union (EU) and national levels which are bewildering coatings manufacturers and distributors because of a lack of clarity about how exactly they apply to coatings.
At the same time, with coatings in particular, they are leading to fragmentation in the EU's single market because they are resulting in the imposition of different standards and labelling rules in individual countries.
The European Commission, the EU's Brussels-based executive, has indicated that for the moment it does not want to tighten up existing regulations curbing emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from decorative and auto refinishing coatings despite claims that the legislation is ambiguous and open to different interpretations.
"We are disappointed that the commission is not considering revising the VOC legislation because parts of it have not been working well due to a lack of clear definitions," said Jacques Warnon, technical director at CEPE-the European trade association for paints, printing inks and artist colors.
Now the EU is concentrating more on the interior air quality (IAQ) of buildings rather than pollution caused by VOCs such as solvents. EU leaders want, for example, to accelerate the passage through the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers-the two arms of the European Union's legislature-of the proposed Construction Products Regulation (CPR). Paints manufacturers are unhappy with this piece of legislation because of doubts about how it relates to coatings.
"The CPR will replace the Construction Products Directive which coatings companies found confusing because of its lack of clarity on coatings," said one UK-based consultant. "But the regulation is not much clearer on the issue of coatings. The EU leaders setting the legislative agenda for the rest of this year wish to give it priority because of concerns about air quality."
The EU wants to focus more on low-emitting materials and products which over a long period slowly release hazardous gases, chemicals and particles into the interior of buildings. They are not covered, for example, by legal curbs on VOCs like solvents which are rapidly discharged into the air after the application of coatings and other materials.
"While beneficial for the indoor environment, (low-solvent) products have not necessarily been formulated and assessed to minimize their impact on indoor air quality," said the European campaign group HealthyAir in a briefing paper.
European governments are under pressure to take action on both interior and exterior air quality because of the rising incidence of respiratory illnesses-particularly allergies, asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). With one in five children in Europe suffering from a chronic respiratory condition, John Dalli, responsible at the commission for health and consumer protection, acknowledged recently the urgent need to address air quality in indoor environments.
"There needs to be a Europe-wide approach to interior air quality as it is affected by coatings and other products, which is not happening properly at the moment," said Brian Ward, policy advisor to the European Respiratory Society, Brussels.
In the absence of EU measures, an increasing number of individual countries have been taking their own initiatives by introducing national standards and labelling rules on issues like low emissions. But often they require coatings producers to apply different criteria to gauge safety levels and use different testing methods.
The French authorities want to introduce labelling rules for coatings in buildings to show that they do not contain hazardous low-emitting substances.
"Coatings companies will have to carry out tests on their formulations even though they know they are safe," said Warnon. "This will increase their costs while it will not provide new information to French consumers. Furthermore it will not reduce emissions because the low-emitting substances are not banned.
"We oppose national measures like this," he said. "We favor European harmonization so that the EU's internal market is not disrupted by national rules."
The German Institute for Building Technology (DIBt), which lays down standards for building materials in Germany, has been imposing tougher limits on emissions from coatings, particularly on wood coatings used on flooring. The institute is technically only an advisory body so the 16 states within the German federation can modify the DIBt standards.
"Standards frequently change," said Michael Bross, head of public relations at the German coating industry association (VdL). "The DIBt has introduced a testing method which ensures that emissions being measured come entirely from the coating and not the substrate."
The objective behind the EU's proposed Construction Products Regulation is to ensure compliance with harmonized EU standards, rather than national ones, so that manufacturers avoid the problem of having to adjust their products to meet the requirements of individual countries.
However the vast majority of coatings are not explicitly included within the regulation's definition of what is a construction product.
"There is a lot of confusion about the interpretation of the scope of the legislation," said Warnon. "Our position is that coatings only give additional properties to construction products such as decorative or protective functions. They provide the surface of the products but this is only semi-permanent because it can be removed."
On the other hand the regulation does explicitly refer to fire-protection coatings, such as intumescent ones, and insulating coatings. It also covers adhesives and sealants.
It emphasises as well the need for buildings to be designed and constructed in such a way that they do not threaten the hygiene and health of occupants nor the environment as the result of the release of toxic gases and other substances. "These hygiene, health and environment requirements may affect coatings," said Warnon. "It's a grey area."
Furthermore amendments by the European Parliament during the legislation's first reading stipulate that buildings and their components must protect health and safety during their entire life cycle. Some analysts feel that once life cycles have to be taken into account it will be difficult to differentiate products from their coatings.
Not surprisingly coatings companies want the legislators to be clearer about the exact responsibilities of the producers and distributors of paints.