We often think of painting as a great way to freshen up a room, but in fact, VOCs commonly found in paint products can pose serious health and environmental risks. If you’re concerned about indoor air quality, it’s important to learn the risks associated with VOCs and what steps you can take to minimize your exposure.

What are VOCs?

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are found in paints and a wide range of home products, such as aerosol sprays, moth repellants, disinfectants, air fresheners, cleaning supplies, and solvents. According to the EPA, VOCs have been linked to a number of short- and long-term health problems. Depending on the level and duration of exposure, VOCs may cause:

  • Nausea
  • Fatigue
  • Headache
  • Shortness of breath
  • Nose, eye, and throat irritation
  • Dizziness
  • Memory loss
  • Cancer
  • Liver, kidney, and central nervous system damage

VOCs bind the paint solution and pigment together in a liquid state, but they evaporate during and after application.

Indoor Air Quality

VOCs, particularly from paints, present a major threat to indoor air quality. The EPA estimates that the concentration of VOCs can be up to ten times higher indoors than outdoors during a normal day. When painting, the EPA estimates that indoor concentrations can rise up to 1,000 times that of levels found outside. Because VOCs are at their highest levels during and right after painting, it’s essential to thoroughly ventilate a room with fans or open windows. Using low- and zero-VOC paints will alleviate this problem. They are particularly helpful in rooms with limited ventilation, such as basements or bathrooms.

What to Know When You Go to the Paint Store

Using low- and zero-VOC paints can reduce health risks associated with VOC exposure and poor indoor air quality. While these “green” paints have increased in popularity in recent years, confusion persists in the marketplace as to what exactly “low-VOC” or “zero-VOC” really means. For example, zero-VOC or VOC-free paints can actually contain up to 5 g/L of VOCs. These trace amounts are typically acceptable, but it’s important to know that “zero” doesn’t always mean zero.

Also, Green Seal warns that some manufacturers label their paints low- or zero-VOC for the levels found in the base paint, but they fail to account for the VOCs present in added colorants or tints. When you finally select your dream shade at the paint store, VOC-rich colorants or tints are often added to the base paint to create the desired color. Because VOCs tend to be higher in darker hues, some consumers unwittingly purchase paints with very high VOC contents. In fact, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) settled a suit in 2012 against two major paint manufacturers that had incorrectly marketed certain paints as zero-VOC. According to the FTC’s ruling, the base paints met zero-VOC requirements, but the products that consumers took home after adding colorants carried more VOCs than they were led to believe.

In an effort to better clarify standards for base paint as well as added colorants or tints, Green Seal developed the GS-11 Green Seal Standard for Paints and Coatings, Edition 3.1. The chart on the left displays Green Seal requirements for base paints, and the chart on the right shows acceptable levels for colorants added to a base paint:

Product Type VOC Level (g/L)
Flat Topcoat 50
Non-Flat Topcoat 100
Primer or Undercoat 100
Floor Paint 100
Anti-Corrosive Coating 250
Reflective Wall Coating 50
Reflective Roof Coating 100
Product Type VOC Level (g/L)
Flat Topcoat with colorant added at the point-of-sale 100
Non-Flat Topcoat with colorant added at the point-of-sale 150
Primer or Undercoat with colorant added at the point-of-sale 150
Floor Paint with colorant added at the point-of-sale 150
Anti-Corrosive Coating with colorant added at the point-of-sale 300
Reflective Wall Coating with colorant added at the point-of-sale 100
Reflective Roof Coatingwith colorant added at the point-of-sale 150

NOTE: GS-11 Green Seal Standard for Paints and Coatings, Edition 3.1. Reproduced with permission from Green Seal.

Some states require that VOC levels be printed in the Material Safety Data Sheet that accompanies paint, but you should be able to contact your paint manufacturer to request that information if it’s not readily available.

Painting Your Home

Keep in mind that VOC levels peak during and right after painting. To limit exposure to VOCs during the painting process, consider doing the following:

  • Open windows or use fans to ventilate the area.
  • Cover furniture or other fabrics that may absorb VOCs with plastic.
  • Keep paint cans or trays covered while not in use.
  • Buy only the amount of paint needed. One gallon of quality paint typically covers 400-450 square feet indoors.
  • Contact local waste management for disposal instructions for any unused paint.

With these tips in mind, you can enjoy the fun of redecorating your home while avoiding harmful exposure to chemicals. If you’re using a professional painter, he or she can also help direct you to quality brands of low- and zero-VOC paints.

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Sources: EPA; Federal Trade Commission (FTC); Green Seal, Minnesota Department of Health; Natural Resources Defense Council.

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