When it's time to paint the inside of your house, you probably spend a lot of time picking out the perfect finish and colors.
How much time, though, do you spend checking out the volatile organic compound (VOC) levels that the paint contains?
VOCs are the toxins present in paint that are released into the air as it dries, often known as giving off that "fresh-paint smell." VOCs emit most as paint is drying, but can continue to be released into the air for several years.
VOCs have been known to cause health issues in those with respiratory issues, allergies or weakened immune systems, and have been linked to causing headaches and nausea and other health issues.
With growing consumer awareness of the negative impact paints and finishes have on air quality, most paint manufacturers and painting contractors have responded by offering low- and zero-VOC paints, which emit fewer toxins, leaving the air in your home cleaner and safer to breathe. Low- and zero-VOC paints cost and perform about the same as traditional petroleum-based paints.
"We had a lady we (recently) painted for who said, 'I need this to not smell. I'm pregnant and have young kids.' So, we used a low-VOC paint," said Joel Marsh, owner of Green Painting of Utah. "We opened the windows pretty much the whole time we were there and when we were done she came in and said, 'Great! I can't smell a thing.' "
The Environmental Protection Agency regulates the amount of VOCs present in paint to 250 grams per liter (g/L) for latex paints. Low VOC paints, which typically are a water- instead of petroleum-based and contain little or no formaldehyde or heavy metals, generally carry a rating of 50 g/L or less. Even zero-VOC paints still contain small amounts of VOCs, typically less than 5 g/L. The VOC level must be visible to the consumer on the paint container's label.
One important factor to consider as you shop for paint is that its VOC levels are measured before any color pigment is added, which will increase the VOC content on average by 2 to 5 g/L.
"You need to look at the VOCs before and after tints," Marsh said. "Some people sell you a zero-VOC product then put color into them that have VOCs. You need to make sure you know what their tinting systems are. Usually, a manufacturer will have two or three options to tint their products. So, if you say, 'I really want this to be zero VOC,' you really need to know that the colors are also zero VOC and not just the paint."