April 11, 2013 By John Shearer
The global trend toward environmentally friendly products has made a significant impact on the paint industry. Volatile organic compounds, known as VOCs, are at the center of many companies’ efforts to provide their customers with “greener” paint. And while VOCs – which act as solvents in traditional house paint, carrying the pigment – can have real health consequences, consumers should look at the facts, not the hype, when it comes to low-VOC paint. Closer examination reveals that the subject of eco-friendly paint is more nuanced than marketing buzzwords suggest. Let us try to de-crypt the information.
Common VOCs include formaldehyde, benzene, and diethyl phthalate. The odor of drying paint is mostly due to the evaporation of its VOCs. This process, known as “off-gassing,” has been found to cause asthma attacks, eye irritation, nausea, and headaches in some people. Long-term exposure to VOCs may even result in cancer or kidney damage.
It’s understandable, then, that VOCs have become a prime target in the movement to make paint eco-friendlier. Over the past few years, many paint makers, including small brands as well as major players like Benjamin Moore, have released low-VOC lines. Yet there are no universal, mandatory standards for low-VOC paint.
In the U.S., a nonprofit called Green Seal sets standards for green products. These standards are considerably more stringent than those of the Environmental Protection Agency. Whereas the EPA allows low-VOC paint to contain up to 250 grams of VOCs per liter of latex paint (380 g/L for oil paint), Green Seal only permits up to 50 grams per liter of flat paint (150 g/L for other types of paint). In addition, Green Seal only certifies paint that doesn’t contain formaldehyde or a variety of other chemicals. The organization’s standard for paint, GS-11, is based not only on VOC content but also on durability and performance. Benjamin Moore’s Pristine Eco-Spec is an example of a Green Seal-certified line.
Alternative paints in the marketplace today include low-VOC, “zero-VOC” (a misnomer, as we’ll examine shortly), nontoxic, and natural paint. Voluntary standards, such as Green Seal’s, don’t take into account the VOCs added to paint when it’s tinted at the store. Furthermore, some paint makers use “low VOC” merely as a marketing term, the way food companies may use “natural” or even “organic.” Low-VOC paint is confusing enough that the clerks at your local paint store may be unsure about the label.
Despite its name, “zero-VOC” or “no-VOC” paint simply has a very low VOC content, generally no more than 5 g/L. As Canadian Home Workshop notes: “All paints have chemicals, colourants, biocides, and fungicides, which all off-gas.” Adding pigment at the paint store can increase the VOC level by 2 to 5 g/L, but the total should be under 10 g/L – still an extremely low level. Sherwin-Williams’ Harmony line is a popular zero-VOC paint, as is Benjamin Moore’s Natura line. Both off-gas for a shorter period of time, and less toxically.
If even zero-VOC paint isn’t eco-friendly enough for you, nontoxic or natural paint may meet your needs. Both have the lowest VOC levels available; unfortunately, they’re pricier and harder to find. Alternative companies, rather than household names like Benjamin Moore, make these paints, which means you may have to order them online.
Nontoxic/natural paints are made from ingredients like water, plant oils and dyes, clay, milk protein, natural latex, and beeswax. They may not cover, or flow off the brush, as well as conventional paint. That said, if eco-friendliness is paramount to you, they might be your best option. Bio Shield, Livos, and Auro are a few makers of nontoxic/natural paint. An even newer option is ceramic paint, whose film relies on microscopic ceramic beads. Its VOC level is very low, and it prevents mold, is very durable, and stands up well to scrubbing. Ceramic Coat by O’Leary Paint is a reputable ceramic paint.
By now you’ve surely realized that “low VOC” is a relative term, and that eco-friendly paint isn’t a black-and-white issue (no pun intended). VOCs are actually found in many building materials besides paint, and while low-VOC paint doesn’t off-gas as much as traditional paint, it still off-gasses. Paints with low VOC content dry quickly and cover well, just like their higher-VOC counterparts, and they’re durable, come in many colors, and aren’t hard to find. Nonetheless, they may contain solvents or additives other than VOCs. Carpet glue, some house cleaners, and cigarette smoke are all worse for people than VOC exposure. And low-VOC paint isn’t necessarily low-odor paint.
The “low VOC” label, like any marketing claim, should be verified rather than accepted at face value. The relatively recent craze for green building, including the ubiquitous LEED certification, has certainly increased the buzz surrounding alternative paint. Then again, paints not based in petrochemicals were around long before the invention of what we consider “conventional” paint. (Ancient India’s water- and lime-based paints are one of many examples.) Currently, every country seems to have its own standards regarding low-VOC paint. It’s therefore up to the consumer to do the necessary research, and to ask the relevant questions.
A recent article in the Utne Reader pointed out that even water-based, low-VOC paint may contain propylene glycol and glycol ethers, commonly known as PGEs. These chemicals can induce asthma attacks, eczema, and/or allergy symptoms, especially in children. Only nontoxic or natural paint is free of PGEs; Safecoat, Keim, and Yolo are a few makers of PGE-free paint.
The fact that low-VOC paint has been heavily hyped, and that use of the term isn’t strictly regulated, doesn’t mean it doesn’t have its merits. Paint with low VOC content is easy to clean up using soap and water, and it contaminates the groundwater considerably less than conventional paint. Progress of any kind is generally disorganized, and the rise of eco-friendly paint illustrates that point very well. Until such time as labels like “low VOC” are strictly regulated, the onus is on the consumer to make sense of it all. Caveat emptor, to be sure, but don’t let the confusing nature of alternative paint keep you from exploring it.