VOC stands for “volatile organic compound,” and there are hundreds of such substances in house paint. These chemicals are responsible for the recognizable scent associated with fresh paint. Although some people enjoy the “new paint” smell, many of these chemicals are carcinogenic or otherwise harmful to the body. They’re especially dangerous to people with weakened respiratory symptoms or sensitivity to odors.
Volatile organic compounds are found in many substances beside paint, including auto emissions. Regardless of where they’re found, these compounds are harmful. VOCs are unstable carbon-based compounds. When exposed to the air, the chemicals react with other substances in the air to produce ozone. Once the paint has finished drying, the chemicals are released at a much slower rate, which is why paint only has an odor until it dries. Nevertheless, house paint continues to release VOCs for up to a year after being applied.
Ozone is toxic, and it can cause headaches, burning eyes and nausea in the short term. Long-term exposure to this type of pollution can cause respiratory illness and damage to the liver and kidneys. People exposed to these pollutants are also at a greater risk of certain types of cancers.
In addition to the health risks posed to humans, VOCs are environmentally damaging. The ozone created by these volatile compounds can rise into the atmosphere and cause substantial problems. Smog is a common effect of this type of pollution.
Altogether, paint is the second-largest environmental pollutant. As consumers become more aware of the threat these chemicals pose, they become more concerned with safe alternatives. In response to this demand, some paint manufacturers have begun trying to create VOC-free paint formulas, and government oversight has started to play a role in the production of safe paints.
History of VOC Control
Regulation of VOCs began in the 1990s, when growing ecological awareness prompted the government to play an active role in protecting people from these compounds. The EPA also created a general description of VOCs rather than simply creating a list of prohibited materials. This was an important step in reducing the amount of volatile compounds introduced into the atmosphere.
Currently, each state is able to set its own standards for VOC limits and implement its own safety testing. The variance between states can cause some problems for businesses that manufacture, sell and distribute products, but federal oversight helps to mediate some of these concerns.
Over the years since regulation began, limits on VOC production have become more strict. This has led to lots of experimentation among paint manufacturers to create durable, high-quality products with minimal harmful chemicals. It’s now possible to find a variety of low-VOC paints, although not all of these environmentally friendly options are necessarily 100 percent safe or effective.
Are All Paint Chemicals VOCs?
Paint is composed of three primary parts:
— The pigment, which gives paint its color
— The binder, which is what gives paint its bulk and serves as a vehicle for the pigment
— The thinner or solvent, which keeps the paint in liquid form
Each part of the paint formula contains unique chemicals that modify the way the paint will behave. In general, the binder and thinner will be mixed together prior to adding the pigment, and pigment amounts will be adjusted to ensure that the paint’s shade is correct.
The solvent usually has the highest concentration of volatile compounds. This is because the solvent is designed to evaporate quickly to allow the paint to dry. Substances that evaporate quickly are by definition volatile, so it can become a challenge to form a paint that will dry reasonably quickly without it containing dangerous volatile chemicals. Here are some of the more common VOCs in paint solvent:
— White spirit
Oil-based paints have the strongest solvents and the highest number of these VOCs. Latex paints use water-based solvents, which are lower in VOCs. Their ecological soundness is one reason why latex paints are heavily preferred over oil paints in many household applications today.
Even a paint with a water-based solvent can contain volatile compounds in the pigment and binder. These can be particularly challenging to spot because paints are often certified as safe or “green” before pigment is added, so any volatile compounds introduced by the pigment are not included in the assessment. Nevertheless, reducing the number of volatile compounds in paint thinner is a valuable first step to reducing indoor pollution levels.
Other Toxins in Paint
Of course, volatile organic compounds are not the only toxic substances present in house paints. Although lead is no longer used in modern paint, other heavy metals like chromium and cadmium are sometimes used. Heavy metals can pose an environmental hazard if they’re consumed or absorbed into the body, but do not have the same reactive property with the air as VOCs.
Other paints will have additional compounds added to them to prevent mold formation or extend the shelf life of the paint. These chemical additives do not evaporate from the paint but rather stay within it, making the paint itself toxic.
All of this means that a low-VOC paint is not necessarily safe or environmentally friendly. In order for a paint to be truly “green,” it must not have any environmental toxins. This is why reading labels and doing some research to determine exactly what might be in a paint before buying it is a good idea.