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Buying low- or no-VOC paint may cost more than conventional paint but it will release fewer or no volatile organic compounds (VOCs) into your home or office air. VOCs create ground-level ozone pollution and carry potential health risks.

Find it! Low- or no-VOC paint

As you consider the ever-growing low- and no-VOC paint options, just keep three things in mind:

  • First, oil-based paints generally have a higher VOC-content.
  • Second, glossy paints contain more solvents, which means higher VOC content.
  • Third, even if you choose a no-VOC paint, most tints also boost VOC levels.

The moral? The lighter the tint, the flatter the finish, the lower the VOC content.

Before you buy

Even low or zero-VOC paints may contain ingredients which are toxic. Such ingredients include ammonia, glycols, biocides, acetone, and formaldehyde. Technical Data Sheets or Materials Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) obtained from retailers or manufacturers’ websites list information about the paints that may help in making a choice.

Buying low or no-VOC paint helps you go green because…

  • Compared to conventional paints, these paints contain fewer or zero VOCs, chemicals released into the air by paint that can hurt the environment as well as damage human and animal health.
  • Latex or water-based paint contains far fewer VOCs than oil-based or alkyd paint.

Paint can easily and quickly revamp a room. Each year an average of two gallons of household paint is sold for every person in the US. More than 850 million gallons of indoor and outdoor paint was sold for use on residential, commercial, institutional, and industrial buildings in 2005.[1] The main environmental issue with paint is that much of it contains VOCs. These largely man-made chemicals, found in many household products and in gasoline, evaporate easily into the air. VOCs contribute significantly to ground-level ozone (smog) production and a variety of health problems. Ground-level ozone also harms ecosystems and vegetation, accounting for an estimated $500 million in reduced crop production each year in the United States.[2]

The two basic types of paint are oil-based and latex, which is water-based. In the past, oil-based paints were used for most exterior surfaces as well as woodwork, trim plus bathrooms and other rooms where moisture was an issue. That is not the case anymore, as concern over VOC emissions has lead to national and state regulations that increasingly restrict the amount of VOCs. Oil-based paints are also more difficult to apply, take longer to dry, and are harder to clean up and dispose of than latex paints. As a result, latex paint is now the top choice for most painters, occupying 85 percent of the market.[3]

According to a 2002 US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) study, oil-based paint produces far more VOCs than latex paint, with 32-42 percent VOC content in oil-based paints versus 2 to 5 percent VOC content in latex paints.[4] Even so, emissions from latex paint is a major source of indoor air pollution.[5] The EPA states that 9 percent of the airborne pollutants causing ground level ozone come from the VOCs in paint.[6]

Government regulations continue to mandate decreasing amounts of VOCs in paint and to meet growing consumer demand, some manufacturers produce low- or zero-VOC as well as conventional options. One ton of VOCs will be eliminated for every 1,000 gallons of low-VOC paint used.[7] Further reductions can be achieved with lighter colors and flat finishes, since both contain fewer VOCs than glossy, dark colored paints.

Controversies

While there’s no question that fewer VOCs in paint benefits the health of people and the planet, there are some concerns about the on-the-job performance of these eco-friendly brands compared to their oil-based, higher-VOC compatriots. Some designers, painters, and consumers maintain that the sheen, consistency, and durability of an oil-based paint can’t be duplicated by less toxic versions. They also assert that low-VOC paints may require more coats to attain the same coverage of older latex formulations.

Green Seal tests paints and other products for their environmental attributes, and also employs international test methods for measuring product performance. There currently are more than 20 paint brands that have earned the seal.

Related health issues

People can be exposed to very high pollutant levels while they are using products with VOCs and high levels can remain in the air long after the activity has ceased. Studies of VOCs have found that levels of several chemicals average two to five times higher inside than outside. Levels may be 1,000 times background outdoor levels during, and for several hours after, paint stripping.

Health effects from VOCs vary greatly depending upon the amount of chemicals in the air, time exposed, a person’s susceptibility, and existing medical conditions. Immediate symptoms that people have experienced soon after exposure include eye, throat, or lung irritation, headaches, dizziness and vision problems. Some of these chemicals are known to cause cancer in animals and may be carcinogenic in humans. Young children, people with breathing problems and pregnant women should avoid paint vapors.

The ground-level ozone or smog that forms when VOCs react with nitrogen oxide (NOx) gases in the presence of sunlight and hot weather also create health effects. Breathing ozone can cause chest pain, throat irritation, coughing, and congestion as well as worsen asthma, bronchitis, and emphysema. Studies have also shown damage to lung tissue from ozone that may take several days after exposure for total recovery.

Additionally, lung tissue may be permanently scarred from repeated exposure. Children and adults who are active outside, people with unusual susceptibility to ozone as well as those with asthma or other respiratory diseases are at risk from ground-level ozone.

When considering air flow in a space to be painted, don’t count on your air conditioning or heating system to remove contaminants, as most systems only recirculate air. Bringing in fresh air and moving paint vapors out is particularly important for those who live in apartments or condominiums. Vapors can move across common walls, ceilings and floors, through electric outlets, and spaces around pipes. A few safety precautions, taken when using any kind of paint, will minimize exposure to VOCs:

  • Plan your painting project for dry spells in the spring or fall when you can leave windows open while painting and for two to three days after as paint continues to off-gas.
  • Take fresh air breaks often as you work.
  • Use window-mounted box fans to vent vapors out the window or place a fan (set at moderate speed) in the doorway of the room being painted, blowing into the room.
  • Never use exterior paints in inside spaces.
  • Start painting near the window farthest from the fan with windows open and move toward the fan, finishing that area last.
  • If you don’t have fans, make sure the area is cross ventilated to allow air to flow through.
  • With oil-based paints, simple dust mask will not protect against solvent vapors; use a respirator labeled NIOSH/MSHA Approved for Organic Vapors.

Glossary

  • ground-level ozone: The main component of smog, ground-level ozone is formed when volatile organic compounds (VOCs) react chemically with nitrogen oxides (NOx) when it is sunny and hot outside. Many urban areas have high levels of this summertime pollutant but rural areas can have increased ozone levels too as wind can carry ground-level ozone hundreds of miles from where it originates.
  • nitrogen oxide (NOx): A group of highly reactive colorless, odorless gases that form when fuel is burned at high temperatures. The most common man-made sources of NOx are motor vehicles, electric utilities, and other industrial, commercial and residential sources that burn fuels.
  • volatile organic compounds (VOCs): Organic solvents that easily evaporate into the air. VOCs are emitted by thousands of products including paints, cleaning supplies, pesticides, building materials and furnishings and they may cause immediate and long-term health problems.

External links

Comments

09/22/2008
12:34pm
Maryruth

Just ran across this new eco-paint option: http://www.auro.co.uk/.

12/02/2008
1:18pm
calgirl26

Great No VOC Paint from Baby Safe Finishes. I used it for my entire house. Made in USA and made with No VOC Colorants. They also have a varnish too! http://www.babysafefinishes.com

06/11/2009
10:41pm
GauginGal

Another complete alternative is clay plaster. Can't get much more green than dirt,right? And I dig the texture...ohh sensual! There are some in France and Italy, but prefer www.americanclay.com.

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