Adding paint color inside your home can provide vibrancy, enhance your mood and create a sense of personality in an otherwise drab room. It may also give you cancer.

Yes, those wonderful color palettes that have you swooning over the warm gold in your new living room, the pastel blues or pinks you're planning for your nursery, and the glossy peach tones in your bathroom contain something called volatile organic compounds — and they're deadly. Paints mainly release these chemicals into the air during application and drying, but fumes can continue to waft out for years. By then, you and your family may already have succumbed to asthma, cancer, dizziness, headaches, heart disease, and damage to the liver, kidneys and central nervous system, according to the EPA.

Before you go running out to the local bioterrorism supply depot for a year's supply of gas masks, try your local paint emporium instead. New governmental rules have paint companies creating new lines that meet lower EPA standards, which require levels of less than 200 grams per liter of VOCs (as opposed to 750 grams per liter during the 1970s). Two nonprofit agencies — Greenguard Environmental Institute and Green Seal — provide certification for paint products that meet standards of 50 grams per liter or less. Many, in fact, contain less than 5 grams per liter (and are labeled "zero-VOC"), although they're pricier than those with slightly higher levels.

Initially, however, many of these "green" paints suffered from lack of durability in high-traffic areas and an inconsistency in drying patterns. But over the years, the process of creating paints that included such nontoxic synthetic binders as yogurt or donut powder has been perfected.

Natural paints, which are zero-VOC, are primarily categorized into clays, lime washes or milk-based paints. Clay-based paints mix minerals with water and provide the optimal look for adobe-style color tones. They absorb odor and require only two coats — like regular paints. On the downside, colors and textures are limited and once it's applied, it can't be wiped down. So if there's a stain, it must be repainted. Lime wash mixes calcium-based minerals with water and is a bit less costly. It's also salt-, bacteria- and mildew-resistant, but can only be used on porous surfaces like brick, wood plaster and concrete, so drywall and painted surfaces aren't candidates. Furthermore, it requires several thin coats and, although it's environmentally safe, it's corrosive to eyes and skin, so goggles and gloves are required during application. Milk-based paint mixes the protein casein with clay and earth pigments to create a powder that's later mixed with water. The final mix must be done immediately before its use, however, to avoid clumping, and it's only available in a matte finish. 

A quick gander at the Greenguard Environmental Institute's product guide reveals 34 products that carry its Indoor Air Quality certification (and are also certified for children and schools), including eggshells, flats, glosses, primers and semi-glosses. 

Many of these are available at hardware and home-renovation outlets. They include Benjamin Moore's Eco Spec line, Ecos Organic Paints, St. Astier's Lime Paints, Yolo Colorhouse and the super-pricey Anna Sova Luxury Organics (up to $69 per gallon). The Real Milk Paint Company's line is something of a hybrid, created from milk protein, lime, clay and earth pigments. Even Home Depot now sells its own line, the Freshaire Choice Paint, which is VOC-free and has Greenguard certification. The 66-color line (which ranges from $35 to $38 per gallon) is described as "durable, goes on smooth, covers flawlessly and dries in minutes." Also, the packaging, samples and color cards are all made with recycled materials. 

With these new eco-friendly paints, you can paint your rooms in the morning and sleep safely in them by evening. Your dreams will be of an unharmed environment and a healthy home. And they'll be in an assortment of rich, warm colors.

(MNN homepage photo: Patrykgalka/iStockphoto)