Volatile organic compounds, often called VOCs, are a hot issue in the paint industry. That’s no surprise, considering that they can lead to everything from smog formation to respiratory illness and memory impairment. (The Environmental Protection Agency defines them as carbon compounds that “participate in atmospheric photochemical reactions.”) Paint companies’ race to create the most eco-friendly product has been accompanied by a tidal wave of hype, which can confuse the average consumer. Fortunately, watchdogs like Consumer Reports magazine have been willing to dig deeper on the issue of low-VOC paint.
In 2009, CR staffers determined the VOC content of water-based paints that claimed to be free of VOCs. They also measured high-rated water-based paints that made no such claims. The magazine found that while none of the paints exceeded government VOC limits, every paint had at least some VOC content. In some cases, paints with higher ratings had higher VOC levels, since lowering paint’s VOC content can adversely affect its performance. (That said, some low-VOC paint performs about as well as conventional paint.)
The EPA prohibits flat paint from containing more than of 250 grams of VOCs per liter. All other types of paint can have up to 380 g/L. Some states and regions are much stricter, however. California requires flat paint to contain no more than 100 g/L, while non-flat paint can’t exceed 150 g/L. Due to Los Angeles’ notorious air-quality problems, no paint in the zone surrounding the city can have more than 50 g/L.
Federal regulations concerning paint’s VOC content cover only the base, not the tint that is inevitably added. Thus, the VOC level indicated on a paint can is a low estimate. “Zero-VOC” paint always contains a higher VOC level than that deceptive claim suggests, since no tinted paint is truly without VOCs. CR acknowledges that it’s hard to determine the comparative health effects of a 100 g/L paint versus, say, a 35 g/L paint. Nonetheless, the magazine states clearly that when it comes to VOCs, the lower the level, the better off you’ll be.
At the end of its analysis, CR calls for lower federal limits for VOC content; regulation of tints, since they can double a paint’s total VOC level; better measuring processes than the outdated Method 24, which “has been known to yield high error rates in paints with no or low levels of VOCs”; and a comprehensive VOC standard for indoor-air pollutants. It’s an ambitious agenda, but growing awareness regarding VOCs seems to demand it.
More recently, the National Advertising Division (NAD) of the Council of Better Business Bureaus recommended that Sherwin-Williams, a giant of the paint industry, alter claims that its Harmony paints contain no VOCs. (“Zero VOC” is understood in the industry to mean less than 5 g/L.) Interestingly, NAD’s investigation came about because Sherwin-Williams’ chief rival, Benjamin Moore, challenged the claims in question.
NAD determined that some colors of paint in the Harmony line contain more than 5 g/L once they’re tinted. Sherwin-Williams countered that most of its Harmony paints come in under 5 g/L, and that consumers understand line claims to apply merely to the majority of the colors in a line. NAD remained unmoved, stating that if the line contains exceptions to the 5 g/L rule, Sherwin-Williams should indicate as much in its marketing. As a result, the company promised to consider NAD’s opinion in its future advertising.
The lesson for consumers is simple: Look before you leap. Claims of low or zero VOC content are everywhere, but discernment, if not outright research, is necessary to wade through deceptive marketing and get to the truth. If a paint can has fine print, read it. Better yet, Google “low VOC” and “claims” to survey the latest news on the subject.