It seems as though there’s a lot of confusion about VOCs. I’m hoping this post might, if you’ll excuse the pun, clear the air a bit.
The term “VOC” stands for “volatile organic compound.” The definition of a volatile organic compound really seems to vary depending on who is doing the defining, but basically, a VOC is an organic (carbon-based) chemical compound that will evaporate at room temperature.
As volatile organic compounds evaporate – changing from liquid form to gas/fumes – they will enter the atmosphere and contribute to the formation of ground-level ozone and smog. They will also enter the lungs of, say, someone who is painting. What’s the big deal about that? Well, here’s what the EPA has to say about the health effects of VOCs:
Health effects: Eye, nose, and throat irritation; headaches, loss of coordination, nausea; damage to liver, kidney, and central nervous system. Some organics can cause cancer in animals; some are suspected or known to cause cancer in humans. Key signs or symptoms associated with exposure to VOCs include conjunctival (eye) irritation, nose and throat discomfort, headache, allergic skin reaction, dyspnea, declines in serum cholinesterase levels, nausea, emesis, epistaxis, fatigue, dizziness.
The ability of organic chemicals to cause health effects varies greatly from those that are highly toxic, to those with no known health effect. As with other pollutants, the extent and nature of the health effect will depend on many factors including level of exposure and length of time exposed. Eye and respiratory tract irritation, headaches, dizziness, visual disorders, and memory impairment are among the immediate symptoms that some people have experienced soon after exposure to some organics. At present, not much is known about what health effects occur from the levels of organics usually found in homes. Many organic compounds are known to cause cancer in animals; some are suspected of causing, or are known to cause, cancer in humans.
Hmmm. Not too comforting.
The EPA says that for a flat-finish interior paint to be considered “low-VOC” it must contain less than 250 grams per liter (g/L) of VOCs.
Green Seal sets the bar much higher than the EPA does and allows only 50 grams per liter (g/L), so looking for Green Seal certification when shopping for paint is a good start.
Certain paints such as milk paints, clay paints, Yolo Colorhouse, Freshaire, Mythic or Bioshield solvent-free wall paints, for example, are no-VOC paints. This means that they contain no volatile organic compounds at all. Other paints are classified as low-VOC paints. Benjamin Moore’s Aura paint, for example, contains less than 50 grams of VOC per liter. And Aura uses a water-based/VOC-free coloring system, so the 50 g/L paint in the can remains at 50 g/L even when you add color. What most people don’t know is that many other low-VOC paints use solvent-based coloring systems, so as you add color to your paint, you are also adding VOCs. Thus, it’s always a good idea to ask about a product’s coloring system before making a purchase at your local paint store.
For moms-to-be, new babies, small children and people with respiratory conditions, a no-VOC paint is probably your safest bet, with a low-VOC paint being the next best choice as it will off-gas far less than a standard latex paint.
As with oil or latex paint, when using a a low-VOC paint, good ventilation (open windows, fans, etc.) is important because even with good ventilation, it will take awhile for fumes to completely dissipate. So, if you’re involved with a painting project and it’s warm enough to do so, leaving the windows open for a several days will let your freshly-painted room air out. That way, it will be fume-free (and hopefully pretty-much VOC-free) by the time you start furnishing the space.
For anyone who is interested, Popular Mechanics recently tested and compared Benjamin Moore’s Aura, Home Depot’s Freshaire and Mythic paints and their results and commentary are posted here.