What are VOCs and why are they in my paint?

VOCs (volatile organic compounds) are the solvents that are released into the air as paint dries.  Exposure to VOCs in paint can cause symptoms such as headaches, nausea, fatigue, and dizziness, and the Environmental Protection Agency suspects some VOCs may be carcinogens.  Long term exposure to VOCs can lead to serious health problems such as liver and kidney damage.  So why then are VOCs in paint?  Solvents are required to spread the protective and decorative properties of paint and protective coatings.  And paints that contain VOCs have the qualities we want in a protective coating, such as colorfastness and durability.

Regulation of the acceptable amount of VOCs in paint varies at all levels.  The federal government caps VOC content to 250 grams per liter for flat paint, while the South Coast Air Quality Management District in Orange County, CA has set its standard at 50 grams per liter.  Other states and regions in the country have established their standards somewhere in between.  There is no industry wide definition of what “green” paints are and there isn’t national agreement as to a standard maximum VOC content.  No federally enforceable standards have been set by the EPA for VOCs in non-industrial settings.

In years past, low VOC paints performed poorly.  However, because of environmental regulations and market demand, U.S. paint and coating manufacturers have responded by producing a broad range of quality products that minimize their effects on the environment without compromising paint performance and longevity.  Consumers can now choose from “low VOC” to “zero VOC” paints.  The number generally accepted for a low VOC paint is less than 50 grams per liter, while a zero VOC paint has fewer than 5 grams per liter.  Please note that the VOC amount listed on a paint label doesn’t currently include the VOC’s in colorants added at the store which are used to tint the paint.  The darker the tint, the higher the VOC level.

What does this mean for the homeowner?

  • Carefully check the paint can label – the VOC content should be on the label.  If not, check the manufacturer’s website for product specifications and other pertinent information.
  • Remember, adding colorant will add to the VOC content.
  • Paint labeled “No Odor” does not mean no VOCs – again, check the product specifications for VOC content.
  • When painting in a confined interior area, keep windows open and use an exhaust fan to keep fresh air circulating throughout.
  • Wear the personal protective equipment (PPE) recommended by the manufacturer on the specific product’s Safety Data Sheet (SDS).
  • Ventilate the freshly painted area for two to three days.
  • VOC exposure is not as big a concern when painting outdoors because paint vapors dissipate quickly when painting in an open air environment.

 

Taking proactive steps to limit exposure to paint fumes goes a long way towards averting potential short and long-term health problems.

Shades of Color uses high-quality and environmentally friendly paints.  In addition, we can obtain specialty paints for those who are chemically sensitive and require a more specialized paint.  Please give us a call – we would be happy to discuss some options with you.

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