The clean air movement spurred many industries into action to improve their technologies. Everything from car equipment to paint improved, and not just for the environment, though that is important, too. The EPA required companies to develop these improvements because emissions and high levels of volatile organic compounds contribute to a range of health problems for humans.
Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC)
The smell of paint often ranks up there with fresh cut grass and gasoline for things that smell good to people. The problem with paint is that the average household paint contains up to 10,000 chemicals. 300 of those chemicals are known toxins and 150 of them have been linked to cancer.
Some of the most harmful chemicals in the bunch are volatile organic compounds, or VOC’s. They are unstable, and contain carbon compounds that readily vaporize into the air. Once they hit the air, they react with other chemicals to create ozone, which causes air pollution and health problems. People who inhale ozone often complain of headaches, difficulty breathing, burning or watery eyes, and nausea. Studies show that VOC’s have also been linked to kidney and liver damage, and in severe cases, cancer.
Paint is the second largest source of VOC emissions into the atmosphere, which makes it a big offender. Indoor VOC levels tend to run about 10 times higher than outdoor levels, which is saying something since automobiles are the number one source of VOC emissions. VOC levels are about 1,000 times higher directly after painting, and they continue to seep out for several years.
You may wonder why, if VOC’s are so dangerous, did paint manufacturers allow them to remain on the market. The answer is because VOC’s were believed to be an important part of the paint’s ability to perform.
Paint has three main components: pigment, binders, and solvents. Pigment is what gives the paint its color. Binders help the pigment stick to the applied surface. Solvents keep the paint in liquid form so it’s easier to apply; however, it is the biggest contributor to high VOC levels. The solvent evaporates quickly so that it leaves the pigment and solvent behind, which means the walls need fewer applications of paint. This process releases VOC’s in large doses.
Solvents are either oil-based or water-based. Oil-based solvents release higher levels of VOC, and have a wide range of chemicals mixed in. They’re easier to work with in some cases, but the health risks outweigh the convenience factor. It is also worth noting that switching to a water-based solvent doesn’t necessarily get rid of the VOC’s and toxins as the pigment and binder also contain VOC’s.
To combat this issue, the EPA has put pressure on the industry to come up with safer products. That’s where low-VOC and no-VOC paints have come in. The EPA warns that just because the paint has a low-VOC label doesn’t mean it hasn’t gotten rid of the other toxins as well.
Low-VOC and No-VOC Paints
According to the EPA, in order for a paint company to include a low-VOC paint label on its products, the level of VOC must be less than 250 grams per liter (g/L) for latex and flat-finish paints, and less than 380 g/L for oil-based and other paints. In order for the paint to be classified as no-VOC paint, it must contain less than 5 g/L across the board.
Most low-VOC paints that come from reputable dealers tend to have less than 50 g/L, but you have to remember that the numbers on the can only represent the g/L in the solvents, and don’t include pigments or other additives. In some cases, the pigment can add up to 10 g/L of VOC’s. Despite the progress some manufacturers have made with low-VOC and no-VOC paints, these lower levels do not mean the paint is free from other toxins such as carcinogens, heavy metals, and formaldehyde-donors.
There are some paints that meet high environmental standards, though, and these paints carry the Green Seal. If you’re not familiar with the company, Green Seal is a non-profit environmental organization that certifies products and services as environmentally friendly. The company’s standards are strict, and the expectations of what is considered "green" go beyond what the EPA allows.
In order for paints to qualify for the Green Seal, the VOC levels must be below 100 g/L for non-flat finish and 50 g/L for a flat finish. The VOC limit for primers and floor paints is also 100 g/L, and reflective wall coatings must remain below 50 m/L. The Green Seal requires that company’s remove many of the harmful toxins and chemical compounds within the paint, too. As an added bonus, paints must also meet performance requirements such as abrasion resistance and washability.
There are other measures homeowners can take when it comes to painting. Despite Green Seal’s best efforts, the paints with their seals still contain toxins. As clean air technology improves over time, paint will improve as well. But, in the meantime, another alternative is natural paint. Individuals and green companies make them from naturally occurring materials such as clay and linseed oil. Since they do not use synthetic materials, these paints are low in VOC’s. It is important to keep in mind that some natural paints contain VOC’s unregulated by the EPA. Citrus oils abd terpenes are the most prominent in natural paints, and although these are not nearly as harmful as the chemicals in regular paint, they can aggravate people with chemical sensitivities.
Regardless of whether you choose low-VOC, no-VOC, or natural paints, they might all contain toxins or metals that are bad for your health. Always check the ingredients on the label so you know what you’re getting. Another factor to consider is that low-VOC paints and other alternatives may not perform as well as regular paints. Many of them do, but it depends on what the manufacturer used as the solvent. This will make it more difficult to apply, but not impossible. The important thing to understand is that advancement in clean air technologies provide more options to protect the environment and your health.