What is Low VOC paint?

What is Low VOC Paint?

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:

— Formaldehyde
— Alcohol
— Ketones
— White spirit
— Toluene

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.

Laws Governing VOC Use in Paint

VOC emissions fall under the governance of the Clean Air Act, which also oversees other types of atmospheric pollution. Under the act, there are legally permissible levels of VOCs that can be present in house paint and other substances.

The Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) is one initiative that currently oversees paint safety. Other initiatives exist alongside it, which can cause some confusion for consumers as there is little regulation between them.

The greatest struggle consumers face when trying to identify a low-VOC paint is that many paints are certified as low-VOC before the pigment is added. The paint’s base may be free of harmful chemicals, but the pigment will introduce new, dangerous chemicals to the mix. Additionally, there is no single over-arching definition of what exactly qualifies as a VOC. Therefore, one certification may approve a particular paint brand while another would refuse to certify it.

All of this confusion can make it very challenging to find high-quality low-VOC paint. Fortunately, informed consumers continue to demand increasingly better products, which encourages innovation amount paint producers. Like any new technology, low-VOC paint takes time to perfect. Eventually, its use should become mainstream in the same way that latex paint overpowered oil-based paints a generation before.

Finding Low VOC Paint

According to the EPA, a low-VOC paint is any paint with a VOC level below 380 grams per liter, designated as 380 g/L. This figure refers only to the paint’s base, not the final amount after pigments are added. Pigments can add upwards of 10 g/L of VOCs. To give ample leeway, most reputable eco-friendly paint manufacturers sell paints with levels around 50 g/L.

When looking for a low-VOC paint, your first step is to see if there is a seal or mark of its certification on the label. The primary mark to look for is a blue orb with a green check mark bearing the words “green seal.” Paint with a Green Seal is guaranteed to meet very specific environmental standards. These paints will be both low-VOC and nontoxic in other regards to provide the lowest possible environmental risk.

Bear in mind that a paint marked with the Green Seal is not necessarily VOC-free. These paints simply have quantities below the legal limit. If a completely VOC-free paint is important to you, you’ll need to be sure to choose a paint marked with that designation.

Paints not labeled with the Green Seal can still be low-VOC and relatively environmentally friendly. Some of the most interesting of these are “natural paints,” which are made from all-natural ingredients like clay and chalk instead of synthetic oil-based ingredients. These paints will be low in VOCs but may still contain other toxins, such as cadmium. You’ll need to check the label to see what potentially toxic ingredients the paint may contain.

Ultimately, obtaining non-toxic paint is a matter of informing yourself about potential risks and dangerous chemicals and researching brands to determine whether they contain the substances you don’t want to be exposed to. As demand for these products rises, companies will begin catering to that need, and government regulations will become more clear. Until then, it’s your responsibility to learn as much as you can about the products you bring into your home and make informed decisions about their use.


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©2018 Shearer Painting -  Master Certified Fine Paints of Europe, Seattle Historic Society, Work Place Platinum, Summit Saftey, FCA Contractor, BOMA Hero Award, EST. 1990

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