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Paint: No VOCs Are Good VOCs


Clean Finish Behr's zero-VOC paint shows how far no-VOC chemistry has come. No-VOC doesn't  equate with lower quality, harder to apply paints, the way it used to, when VOC-free paints first hit the market.

I'VE BEEN RENOVATING AN APARTMENT BUILDING for the last few months, so I’ve had a chance to “field test” many brands and types of interior paints. During that time, I’ve become something of a zealot, a no-VOC revolutionary. I’ve come to the conclusion (I’ll explain why shortly) that low-VOC paints are no longer a “good enough” option. Now that we know the health risks and have better options, they make as much sense as switching from unfiltered to filtered cigarettes. But we’re not stuck with this “lesser evil” choice anymore.

This wasn’t always true. Back before the Clean Air Act passed in 1970, levels of VOCs in some waterborne paints were as high as 3.5 lbs per gallon—not including the water content of the coating. The best you could do was look for a paint with lower VOC levels than a competitor.

VOCs levels in both interior and exterior paints are generally much lower today, but exactly how low requires reading the fine print. The basic starting point for paints that call themselves low-VOC is 250 g/L. If you think that’s good enough, try sticking your nose in a can of paint that meets that guideline (warning: do not inhale deeply).

If you read the EPA literature on the subject, you’ll find that there is no precise Low-VOC standard for non-industrial paints. In fact, the EPA warns against trusting any label that claims a paint is “green” or environmentally friendly, without looking deeper:

“The government or third-party organization has not yet established the ground rules to craft consistent, protective standard test methods to rate and compare products and materials. This lack of standardization makes it difficult for the consumer to fully understand what the labels and certifications mean in most cases.”

Where Things Stand
To be fair, most reputable paint manufacturers now offer low-VOC paints in the >50 g/L range. Keep in mind, however, that this level is pre-additives. VOC content can go up dramatically when color pigments are added. Third-party organizations such as Green Seal do test and certify latex paints. If you’re set on using low-VOC products, they offer a higher level of surety about what you are getting, because they certify that the products “do not contain 25 prohibited toxic chemicals, including benzene, formaldehyde and heavy metals. The paint cans may not be made with lead, and the labels instruct users on how to properly recycle or dispose of leftover paint.”

Paint Color Charts for No-VOC Brands

Behr Paint Color Chart

Yolo Colorhouse Paint Colors

Mythic (Cool Room Visualizer)

Milk Paint Colors

Benjamin Moore (Natura brand) Color Chart

Why Am I Queasy?
I began to look into this issue after two experiences with very different paints last fall. The first was a non-toxic organic product from Quiet Home Paints. I rolled two gallons of a smooth, high-hiding deep emerald green-tinted version of this paint into my living space, and ate my lunch in the same room, the same day. No odor, no side effects. I was impressed on all counts with this clean air alternative.

A few weeks later, I purchased a couple of gallons of Valspar Signature brand low-VOC interior paint at my local hardware store. I darkened it to a deep slate blue for use in a bedroom. To be safe, I applied the coat on a Friday, before leaving town for a long weekend. But my troubles began the day of the application. Even with a respirator and a fan clearing air in the room, after a couple of hours I was lightheaded and dizzy, with a distinct chemical taste in my mouth.

That was bad enough, but far worse was the enduring toxicity of the product. Sleeping in the room was impossible for about a week, and even after two weeks of conditioning the room at near 90°F during the day, the odor of paint was still strong. Weeks later, if you put your head next to the wall, you could still smell paint. And this was with only two coats of product on a dry surface.

That’s what I would call an “epic fail” in the category of indoor air quality. I looked up the MSDS for this product, and it contains TIO2, which is a possible human carcinogen.

The Bottom Line
I wrote a story about 10 years ago for Builder magazine, looking at health risks to contractors and trades. I remember I was shocked to learn that the average lifespan of a career house painter was about 51 years.

The industry is already heading in the direction of zero-VOC products. My bet is that in 10 years, you’ll be hard pressed to find a water-based paint with more than 5 g/L VOC content. But my point is, why wait? Why spread toxic, irritating chemicals to millions of homes when cleaner, safer alternatives are here? As builders, contractors, architects and thought leaders, the readers of Green Builder can accelerate the transition with their purchase power. Let’s reward companies that are doing the right thing by strengthening their market position.

Non-Toxic Paints: Priceless?

Why would anyone use low-VOC products when no-VOC or non-toxic options are available? That depends on who’s buying.

Based on what we hear from professionals, performance probably outweighs cost when selecting paints—because they tend to pass on costs to consumers. But this argument no longer stands up, in our view, because non-toxic brands have improved so much in consistency and performance. The best ones go on smoothly, cover well, and are highly durable.

For consumers, of course, price, combined with ignorance about VOCs, are major factors in purchase decisions. Looking at a $12/gal low-VOC can on the shelf next to a $50-$85 can of non-toxic paint, they’re thinking of the checkout line.

A gallon of interior paint covers (conservatively) about 300 sq. ft. Assume that a professional painter charges about $1.00 per sq. ft. for labor, and will use at least three coats. That’s three gallons at, say, $60 per gallon, equating to about $180. Total labor costs will be $300. So a homeowner ends up paying about $1.60 per sq. ft. of painting for a paint that’s safe, versus $1.25 per sq. ft. or so for a $25/gal low-VOC alternative with all the associated health risks.

Health factors need to be thrown into the mix. Some low-VOC paints can offgas for months (some say years, although we couldn’t find data to confirm that). Childhood respiratory problems such as asthma are rampant and becoming ever more common. The national average for one night as an inpatient at a hospital is about $10,000. What’s the long-term price for saving a few dollars on that paint job?

Links to more information:

Eartheasy.com lists most of the high-quality and natural and zero-VOC paints available commercially. Their site is excellent: the most in-depth description of the health aspects of pain that we've every seen. - Editor

The Minnesota Dept. of Health lists the worst VOCs and their potential health impacts.

Green Seal Paints