Have you ever walked into a freshly painted room and noticed a strong smell? That odor is caused by the evaporation of volatile organic compounds. VOCs are a large class of chemicals that readily offgas from many building materials and products.
Most interior coating products—including paints, primers, stains, and wood finishes—emit unhealthy VOCs. Conventional caulks and construction adhesives also offgas VOCs. The offgassing that occurs during application and for days, weeks and even months afterward can be substantial, potentially affecting the health and comfort of people living and working in the home. Exposure to VOCs may cause a range of symptoms, from eye irritation and headaches to more severe effects.
Besides affecting indoor air quality, certain VOCs react with other chemicals in the atmosphere, producing ground-level ozone (better known as smog) that can affect human health.
The good news is that zero- and low-VOC coatings and adhesives are now commonly available from most major suppliers at costs comparable to conventional products. They are applied and perform like conventional products.
Zero-VOC paint isn't available for exterior painting projects, although low-VOC paint is. If you're planning to paint the outside of your home, another good green choice is recycled-content paint.
Maximum VOC levels are regulated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency nationally and the State of California locally. Most conventional paints and coatings are labeled with language such as "Low-VOC Compliant" or "VOC Compliant." This simply means that the product doesn't exceed California's VOC limits and is legal for sale in the state. It does not mean the product has zero or very low levels of VOCs.
Look for the actual VOC content on the product label. True low-VOC paints and primers contain less than 50 grams per liter (g/l) of VOCs for both flat and nonflat sheens. Paints and primers that contain less than 5 g/l of VOCs are classified as zero-VOC. Look for the same criteria for your primers.
For clear wood finishes and wood stains applied to cabinets, trim, doors, shelving, wainscot, floors and other wood surfaces, use products with less than 250 g/l of VOCs. Low-VOC wood finishes, such as waterborne urethane and acrylic or plant-based oils, are lower in toxic compounds compared to conventional oil-based finishes and provide similar durability.
For caulks and construction adhesives, choose products with VOC concentrations of less than 30 g/l for all interior applications such as installing flooring, countertops, trim, wall coverings, paneling, and tub/shower enclosures, and when constructing new walls and other structural elements.
Some zero-VOC paints are considered premium grade by paint manufacturers and cost the same as conventional premium-grade paints. However, more contractor-grade products are becoming available in low- or zero-VOC varieties; these are priced lower than premium paints. The incremental retail price of most low- or zero-VOC paints and coatings ranges from $0 to $4 per gallon, depending on brand, quantity and product line differences.
Some people, including some professional painters, may have a negative view of low-VOC paints due to problems with first-generation products sold ten or more years ago. If you or your painter are one of those people, make sure to try the latest products, because low- and zero-VOC paints and coatings have been reformulated to improve performance. Performance issues such as spread, cover, durability and drying time are related to the quality and type of paint, sealant or coating, not the product's VOC content.
A number of manufacturers have developed high quality recycled-content latex paints and primers. The recycled content, which ranges from 20% to 100%, comes from unused consumer and industrial stock. The leftover paint is checked for quality and then sent to paint manufacturers for recycling and blending with a portion of new paint.
Generally, recycled paints are only recommended for exterior use because of their high VOC levels. However, at least one manufacturer makes a recycled interior paint with a VOC content of less than 50 g/l.
Recycled paint is available in a wide variety of colors, and is applied just like other paint.
More painting tips
- Beware of lead. In homes built before 1978, older layers of interior and exterior paint may contain lead. The federal government banned lead-based paint from housing in 1978. Lead, a toxic metal, can cause a range of serious health problems, especially in children six years old and under. Lead-based paint that is in good condition isn't considered a health hazard, but if it is peeling, chipping or cracking, it needs immediate attention. Also, lead dust can be spread through a home during remodeling projects that involve sanding, scraping or cutting through surfaces painted with lead-based paint. For information on how to check your home and family for lead and how to hire certified lead-based paint professionals to remove lead hazards, go to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's website, www.epa.gov/lead.
- Mind the color. VOC levels are generally reported for the base paint before the product is tinted. Most tints are synthetic and add some VOCs, although a few brands have true zero-VOC tints. Because of the VOCs in tints, saturated colors usually have higher levels of volatiles than light colors. Some manufacturers only offer low-VOC paints with light and moderate tints.
- Know your ingredients. Many people, especially those with chemical sensitivities, can have adverse reactions to paints and other coatings. Low- and zero-VOC coatings may not prevent these reactions. Although low and zero-VOC coatings can contain lower levels of potentially toxic chemicals, most coatings are not entirely free of toxins. Coating products do not typically list all ingredients on the label. If you are concerned about potentially toxic ingredients, refer to the product's Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS). An MSDS provides toxicity, flammability, safe use and hazards information. Manufacturers are required to provide MSDS upon request and most make them readily available on their websites.
- Consider the alternatives. As an alternative to conventional paint, tinted gypsum plaster and natural clay plaster can be a less-toxic interior finish option.
- Apply it right. Proper paint and coating application will help keep your home healthier. Allow sufficient ventilation and airing out of the areas during and after painting or coating to reduce exposure to VOCs. In addition to choosing low- and zero-VOC paints, stains and coatings, minimize potential indoor air quality concerns by choosing products that are factory finished whenever possible. For example, if you are buying new hardwood flooring material, choose a factory-sealed product rather than one that requires sealing after installation in your home.
- Make it last. To improve durability and make cleaning easier in rooms that take a lot of abuse, such as kitchens, bathrooms, laundry rooms and mud rooms, use a semi-gloss or high-gloss paint.