Spray Paint and the Buff: Bad for Air Quality?

2022 UPDATE: This post gets a fair amount of traffic via Google searches for spray paint and air quality issues. Glad you stopped by! Recently, Stencil Archive has added other posts about spray paint and environmental/health issues: a long read on aerosol pollution from Mongabay, Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) for Belton and MTN 94 paints, and an article on aerosols from National Geographic. Read on and get informed. - Stencil Archive

Paint it green

Do graffiti artists express themselves at the expense of our air quality?

Graffiti artists and taggers already have to worry about local law enforcement catching them with a backpack full of spray paint. Someday, they may also have to dodge environmentalists and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Research by a local air quality specialist suggests graffiti -- and the efforts to cover it up -- might damage the air more than some industries that are monitored by the federal government. The turf war between graffiti artists and local officials in Clark County produced an estimated 31 tons of emissions in 2008, according to Algirdas Leskys, a senior air quality specialist with Clark County, who did the research on his own time. Paint produces volatile organic compounds, which are the precursors of the ozone that turns the air yellow and thick. The majority of the fumes came not from the graffiti itself but from the paint used to cover it up, he said.

That's more air pollution than the county incurs from auto body refinishing, traffic marking and structure fires, which are all monitored by the EPA. Leskys presented his research at an EPA conference in September, with the hope the agency would add graffiti to its list of emissions sources.

"I tried to be careful not to overstate how much is emitted," he said. "But I did want to point out that it is larger than several sources that we track."

Graffiti is already a huge issue for local governments in Clark County, which spent almost $4 million to clean up graffiti in 2006. Public service campaigns and efforts to increase criminal penalties have done very little to fix the problem. Maybe young people will be more receptive to messages that target their inner environmentalist, Leskys said.

"By tracking graffiti emissions, I think the EPA would provide local governments with one more valuable argument that they could use to dissuade people from participating in graffiti," he said. "Since younger people appear to be more receptive to environmental arguments, this could be particularly useful."

According to Leskys's research, each can of standard spray paint produces about 0.4 pounds of emissions. The latex paint that covers graffiti produces less by volume, but more overall because of the amount that's used. Anti-graffiti coatings used on bridges and signs also produce toxic chemical fumes.

In industrial settings, exposure to spray paint is well-regulated because of its impact on the brain. Aerosol artists who work on Fremont Street do so in individually ventilated kiosks with strong fans. The kids who express themselves on open walls usually don't take the same kind of precautions.

There is some evidence that graffiti artists are beginning to address the problem themselves. Caleb Aero, an artist based in California, founded his own line of eco-conscious spray paint. Blubber Colors are made from acrylic paint and use more environmentally-friendly propellants. Although Aero warns users to follow all the usual safety precautions, his paint uses green solvents in place of the harsh chemicals in other brands.

Despite the relative greenness of his product, Aero wasn't motivated by a desire to become the most environmental painter on the block. He simply wanted to make a product that catered to serious artists. Most of the spray paint on the market is intended for industrial use, which is why it is so harsh and glossy. Acrylic paint would work better for artists who want to work indoors or on a variety of surfaces, he said.

"No one has created a [spray] paint for artistic application before," Aero said. "This one is made for creative use."

Despite its outlaw origins, graffiti has been moving toward respectability. Artists such as Aero and Las Vegas's own Ras One have been trying to establish so-called permission walls where kids can express themselves without having to worry about getting arrested. That will cut down on some of the emissions produced by the endless cycle of illegal art and its cleanup.

Ras One also holds classes for kids in his Pop2 graffiti shop in the Arts Factory. The classes take them off the streets and into the studio, where they learn about figure drawing and graphic design. He added local governments could make more progress against illegal graffiti by working with taggers instead of turning to the courts or pouring money into clean-up efforts. That's also true when it comes to emissions.

"What one kid does still doesn't compare to the millions of dollars they use to fight it, on top of all the chemicals they use to fight it," Ras One said.

Leskys said he is not opposed to all kinds of graffiti. But he would like to see the federal government devote some of its resources to fighting what is a major problem for local governments. If the EPA starts tracking the emissions from graffiti, it might be able to convince some kids to curb the practice. And that will save local governments money.

"Graffiti costs quite a bit of money that could be spent on other things," Leskys said. "And the greater source of emissions is not the graffiti itself, but the paint that's used to cover over graffiti."