The change to a water formulated base coat was voluntary, not required by a state or federal law. But many inside and outside the industry think it’s only a matter of time before auto body industry will be required to use paints with far fewer air toxics such as volatile organic compounds (VOCs), solvents and heavy metals.
“Sooner or later it’s going to happen – the Environmental Protection Agency will make us switch to water-based paints,” said Jon Conine Jr., paint technician and one of three new owners of Tumwater Collision.
Air toxics generated by auto collision repair shops have been linked to smog, respiratory problems, nervous system damage, even cancer, according to EPA. The federal agency estimates that if 1,000 collision repair shops implemented environmentally friendly practices, it would reduce air toxic emissions by 3.5 million pounds per year.
Conine, 36 has been spray-painting cars professionally for 18 years. He said the new paint system reduces his exposure to harmful chemicals, cuts air emissions and makes it easier to match the factory paint job, because the majority of cars leaving the factory are coated with waterborne paint.
“I love it,” he said. “It’s fun to paint again. The color match is phenomenal. There’s less paint going into the atmosphere and more going on the car.”
Conine still uses traditional primers and a clear coat to start and finish the job.
That means the overall reduction in hazardous air pollutants in the painting process at a shop like Tumwater Collision is probably close to 25 percent, said Ken Grimm, industry outreach manager for the non-profit Pacific Northwest Pollution Prevention Resource Center in Seattle.
“That’s pretty significant,” he said, adding that less than 10 percent of the collision repair shops in the state have switched over to waterborne base coat paint.
“That number is going to accelerate,” Grimm predicted. He said increased regulations, time and materials saved by using less volatile paint, pressure from consumers and concerns of residents living near repair shops will all speed up the industry’s green business practices.
Olympic Region Clean Air Agency engineer Geoffrey Glass said he’s not aware of any other collision repair shops making the switch yet in ORCAA’s six-county jurisdiction, including Thurston, Mason, Clallam, Jefferson, Pacific and Grays Harbor counties.
Water-based automotive paints are required in Canada and Europe and California requires waterborne primers to curb air emissions, according to the pollution prevention resource center. Several metropolitan areas with air quality problems, including Houston and Chicago, have restrictions in place, too.
EPA and the state Department of Ecology support technical assistance and education projects to reduce the amount of air pollution emitted by collision repair shops.
“We’re in the early stages of the switch to waterborne base coats,” noted Jared Mathey, an Ecology air quality specialist. “It’s a step in the right direction.”
Conine said it cost Tumwater Collision about $6,000 to convert from the high-VOC paint system to the low-VOC one. The cost of a paint job didn’t change due to the new system.
“The cars are in the spray booth a shorter period of time and I’m in there a shorter period of time,” Conine said. “Those are both good things.”