As Remodelista’s resident paint palette expert, I’ve spent a lot of time in the past year researching paints. If you’re like me, you might be a bit confused about volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in paint. To get a handle on the issue, I decided to turn to the experts for help decoding all the information that’s floating out there. Here’s our report on what you need to know about VOCs in paint.
Above: I have a lot of extra paint lying around from Remodelista posts on recommended Paint Colors.
What are Volatile Organic Compounds, and why are they in paint?
VOCs are carbon-containing chemicals that are labeled “volatile” because they evaporate easily at room temperature, thereby entering the air we breathe. To learn more, I called up Dr. Steven Fedder, a senior lecturer in chemistry at Santa Clara University in Santa Clara, California (he’s the professor who instilled in me a lifelong interest in environmental chemistry). According to Fedder, VOCs can be naturally produced by plant and animal processes or manufactured by humans. Some of the better known VOCs are benzene (in cigarette smoke), formaldehyde (in building materials), and toluene, xylene, acetone, methylethyl ketone, and ethyl acetate (in paint).
According to Shari Steber (owner of Timber Pro Coatings, an eco-friendly stain manufacturer based in Portland, Oregon), the biggest contributors to VOCs in paints and stains are chemical solvents (the materials that enable the other ingredients to blend together) and the chemical driers (the materials that allow the product to dry).
Above: White enamel paint from my DIY post on How to Refinish a Bathtub–likely the most toxic household project I’ve ever undertaken.
What are the health risks?
According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, health risks of exposure to VOCs include eye, nose, and throat irritation, headaches, loss of coordination, memory impairment, and nausea. Not to mention damage to the liver, kidney, and central nervous system. The EPA also notes that some VOCs are either suspected or known to cause cancer in humans. One common side effect of VOCs is sick building syndrome (SBS), or reports of breathing problems and respiratory irritations experienced by the occupants of a new or newly renovated building.
“There’s no question that the VOCs in paint and spray paint are toxic,” Fedder says. “It just depends on which compound you’re talking about, since they vary in toxicity.”
Above: Photograph via DIY Window Boxes: Build It Yourself for a Perfect Fit.
Is paint the only source of VOCs?
Not even close. The US EPA cites a slew of VOC-containing products, including cleaning supplies, pesticides, building materials and furnishings, and office equipment (such as copiers and printers, correction fluids, and permanent markers).
If they’re toxic, why aren’t VOCs regulated?
It’s a complicated situation: “Every state has different rules and regulations on what the allowable VOCs are,” Steber says. “Los Angeles County has some of the strictest VOC regulations in the country due to their air pollution issues. But I’ve noticed when traveling there that retailers are selling exterior stains in LA County that are illegal to use there.”
How can I find out whether my paint contains VOCs, which compounds, and how much it contains?
A complete toxicity review is available for all pure chemical compounds manufactured and sold in the US, contained in each product’s material safety data sheet, or MSDS. If you’ve never looked for the MSDS, start paying attention and you’ll see it attached to many chemical products sold online. If it isn’t, ask the company for it.
Unfortunately, the MSDS is not the last word, and both MSD sheets and regulatory information can be confusing. Says Steber: “Just to refresh myself, I went online this afternoon to see what’s happening in the Southern California coastal area, where they have some of the strictest VOC allowable levels in the country, and the information I found was confusing even to me, an industry professional.”
Even more disappointing? According to chemist Monona Rossol of the nonprofit Arts, Crafts, & Theater Safety, MSD sheets and accompanying information may still neglect to list everything you need to know. In her book The Health and Safety Guide for Film, TV, and Theater, published in 2011 and now in its second edition, Rossol writes, “The technical definition of a VOC is any chemical that ‘participates in atmospheric photochemical reactions.’ However, many solvents, such as acetone and ethyl acetate, react negligibly in the atmosphere. These are called ‘exempt compounds’ and are not labeled as VOCs.”
In other words, some VOC measurements include all VOCs emitted from a product into the immediate air environment, while other measurements include only those VOCs that are regulated to control smog levels. Therefore, acording to the EPA, “VOC labels and certification programs may not properly assess all of the VOCs emitted from the product, including some chemical compounds that may be relevant for indoor air quality. This is especially true of most wet products, such as paints or adhesives that may be labeled as ‘low-VOC’ or ‘zero-VOC.’ “
Are there VOC-free paints?
Above: Mythic paint of New Jersey claims to be completely VOC-free.
It’s open to debate. As with all industries requiring regulation, reporting standards are imperfect. And if you consider Rossol’s argument that “low-VOC” or “no-VOC” products only address a limited range of compounds, it becomes even murkier. (We’re not suggesting that any one company is intentionally misleading consumers; we’re pointing out that the definition of “low” and “no” can be open to interpretation.)
For instance, Mythic paint says its products contain “zero-toxins, zero-carcinogens, and zero-VOCs.” I spoke with someone at Mythic (who declined to be quoted) and he said that their paints are absolutely zero VOC. He noted that unlike its competitors, Mythic’s base and tints are both completely free of VOCs, whereas several competitors still use high-VOC tints even if their base product is low- or no-VOC.
Consumer Reports tested Mythic and several other “VOC-free” paints in 2009–the latest year for which we could find independent testing data–and found VOCs in all of them. However, Consumer Reports adds this cautionary note about its findings: “Those test results could reflect an inherent flaw in [the test], which has been known to yield high error rates in paints with no or low levels of VOCs.”
What are the best paint choices?
Latex-based paints will always have lower levels of VOCs than oil-based paints. Beyond that, go as low-VOC as you can.
Here are some numbers for interior wood stains, courtesy of Sheri Steber: “When we first started manufacturing back in the early 1990s, ‘low-VOC’ was 350 grams per liter and it took fifteen or more years to get it down to 250 gpl. Personally, I don’t consider 250 gpl to be very low anymore; I think the maximum allowable VOC content should be lowered to 150 gpl.” (For reference, the VOC levels in Sheri’s company Timber Pro’s products range from zero to 86 gpl.)
Consumer Reports quotes Janice Nolen, assistant vice president of the American Lung Association, regarding VOCs: “Generally speaking, less is always better.” To start sourcing, see 10 Easy Pieces: Eco-Friendly Paints on Remodelista and 5 Favorite Eco-Friendly Stains on Gardenista.
For more stories on how to make smart household choices, see:
- Expert Advice: 10 Ways to Live with Less from Zero Waste Home
- Remodeling 101: The Ins and Outs of Plywood
- The Great Lightbulb Debate
- Tap In: Use Water More Efficiently
N.B.: This post is an update. It originally ran on April 23, 2014, as part of our Going Green issue.