What is low VOC paint? Despite having a name that includes the word “organic,” volatile organic compounds are a far cry from pesticide-free vegetables.
VOCs cause health and environmental problems, which may be amplified in an energy-tight home. They are in thousands of common products, but some of the most dangerous are in paint, which is literally spread all over your house.
What Is Low VOC Paint? What You Need to Know About Low-VOC Paint
Most paint companies now offer products with smaller quantities of VOCs. However, choosing and using a low-VOC paint can be complicated.
Organic But Not Green
First, why does organic not equal good in this case? To scientists, organic compounds are any substances comprised of two or more chemicals that contain carbon. The volatile part is the chemicals’ yearning to vaporize and turn from a liquid or solid into a gas. The part of the compound that doesn’t vaporize is left behind as a solid mass, which is a really handy trick for making and applying paint.
However, scientists are quickly discovering a vast number of serious health threats connected with VOCs. The Environmental Protection Agency lists eye, nose and throat irritation, headaches, nausea and liver damage as a few of the potential side effects of VOC exposure. The EPA also warns that some VOCs have caused cancer in animals and may do the same in humans.
Energy-Tight Is Chemical-Tight
The EPA found the levels of some VOCs to be two to five times higher inside a home than outside. The levels may be higher still in a well-sealed home. Many energy-conscious homeowners caulk, seal and insulate their homes until very little cold outdoor air is exchanged with warm inside air (or vice versa). A building can be too energy-tight. You aren’t doing your family any favors by cutting the electric bill while increasing their exposure to hazardous chemicals.
Always Read the Label
There is an alternative to unhealthy VOC paint. Most hardware and paint stores carry low VOC substitutes but beware as the paint industry is not immune to greenwashing. Even a zero-VOC label cannot be taken at face value. The EPA allows up to five grams per liter in a “zero-VOC” paint, and higher limits once pigments, dyes, and other additives are included. Still, this is much lower than in standard paints. Instead of trusting the claims on the front of the can, study the label on the back.
Find the paint with the lowest number under “VOC content,” the highest number under “solids content”(solid paint components are not as volatile), and the absence of EPA, OSHA and DOT registration numbers, which indicate federally monitored toxic ingredients.
Look for the ‘Green Seal’
Having said that, another label is truly meaningful. Green Seal, the nonprofit environmental-responsibility grading company, has been refining a strict paint standard since 1993. The presence of the group’s GS-11 seal means the product is completely free of 12 harmful chemicals and has only small amounts of other VOCs.
Get a Second Opinion
Unfortunately, the Green Seal label is not a guarantee of quality. The paint industry has been perfecting its VOC-heavy paints for decades. Not so for low-VOC paints; they may not be as durable or attractive as their traditional counterparts. There are plenty of excellent low-VOC paints on the market, but it is worth checking Internet forums and with paint experts before deciding randomly to use a low VOC paint that eventually may bubble and peels off your walls.
Tone Down the Tint
Also, consider the color of your paint. Paint tints contain VOCs, particularly in darker shades. So adding tint may increase the amount of VOCs in your paint. Better to go with lighter shades and reduce your family’s exposure.
Safe Disposal Still Crucial
Finally, no matter how carefully you gauge your paint need (400 square feet per gallon is the general guideline), you will likely have leftover paint. Even the non-VOC variety shouldn’t be poured down the drain or sent to the landfill. You can donate paint to a home-improvement reseller, such as the Habitat for Humanity ReStores. Otherwise, contact your local household hazardous waste facility for proper disposal.
Keeping your family safe from VOCs is not difficult if you follow a few simple rules. Don’t over-insulate a home containing VOC paint. When buying paint, avoid VOCs by carefully reading the label, looking for the Green Seal, and going with less tint. Avoid poor quality, low VOC paint by getting expert advice. And always dispose of excess paint properly. It’s worth the small additional effort to protect your family’s health—and the Earth’s.
- Consumer Reports list for Best Paint Reviews. For products that claim to be low to zero-VOC.
- South Coast Air Quality Management District Rule 1113
- Low-VOC Interior Paint and Other Safe Alternatives – the spruce
- Where to Buy Recycled Paint? – Paintcare.org
- Low- and Zero-VOC Paints from Better Homes and Gardens magazine on the GreenGuard.org