Ah, the smell of a freshly painted room! If the very thought makes you want to run for a face mask and respirator, you’ll be jumping for joy over the advent of low- and no-VOC paints. Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) are the unpleasant and unstable, carbon-containing compounds that readily vaporize into the air. They’re responsible for that “fresh paint” smell as well as the tell-tale odor of freshly adhered flooring. They’re the things to blame for the overwhelmingly intense “chemical” odor during any painting, renovation or remodeling project.
That would be bad enough if the problem stopped when the odor went away. Unfortunately, studies have shown that that stinky period is only about 50% of the VOCs; the rest slowly seep out over days, weeks, months and years. Indoor VOC levels are routinely 10 times higher than those outdoors. And what’s the big deal? VOCs contribute to ozone and smog formation and are linked to respiratory illnesses and memory impairment. Federal and state requirements are starting to limit VOCs, but smart companies are going above and beyond the requirements.
The benefits of opting for low- to no-VOC product? Reduced toxins are always a benefit and especially to those with allergies or chemical sensitivities. Low-VOC products are just as effective, easier to clean up and produce fewer environmental contaminants than their counterparts. Since they are not deemed hazardous waste, clean up and disposal are both simplified, and since they produce fewer vapors during application, there are fewer fumes and spaces can be occupied sooner, with fewer odor problems.
Natural paints and finishes
These are paints made from natural raw ingredients like water, plant oils and resins, plant dyes and natural minerals like clay and chalk. They may contain natural latex, bee’s wax and other earth and mineral dyes. They give off almost no smell and even the oil-based paints have an almost pleasant citrus scent. Allergies and sensitivities to these paints are not common and they are considered the safest for your health and the environment. They are also the hardest to find, the most expensive and have the fewest options in color and style.
Zero VOC paints and finishes
Any paint with VOCs in the 5 grams/liter or less range can be called “Zero” or “No” VOC. They may still contain colorants, biocides and other ingredients that produce some VOCs as testing is done prior to any additives. Adding a color tint may increase the VOC level up to 10 grams/liter, which is still considered very low. These tend to be somewhat widely available in a variety of colors and styles.
Low VOC paints and finishes
Low VOC paints and finishes use water instead of solvents as a carrier and also contain low to no levels of heavy metals and formaldehyde. The level of VOCs varies among manufacturers and should be listed on the paint can. To meet EPA standards, paints must not contain VOCs in excess of 200 grams/liter and varnishes must not contain more than 300 grams/liter. Most are actually under 50 grams/liter.
The Green Seal Standard
Paints and finishes with the Green Seal Standard mark are certified to have fewer than 50 grams/liter in flat finish and fewer than 150 grams/liter for non-flat finishes.
Low-VOC paints will still emit an odor until dry, and if you are particularly sensitive, choose paints and finishes that are under 35 grams/liter.
VOC absorbing paints
There are specialty paints that contain an active ingredient designed to absorb VOCs such as formaldehyde. These can be used as a primer to trap VOCs on existing painted surfaces.
Most paint strippers are terribly caustic and work by melting the paint with a potentially carcinogenic primary ingredient. The new generation of biodegradable, water-based paint strippers is entering the market. The active ingredient in many of the new products is N-Methylpyrrolidone (NMP), an organic solvent. Rather than burning or melting, the compound chemically changes the paint itself, softening it for easier removal. While considered an organic solvent, NMP is still has potential health hazards. These new strippers are more expensive than their traditional counterparts, and they take longer to work.