Understanding High, Low & No Volatile Organic Compounds In Paint
What Are Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)?
Volatile Organic Compounds, or VOCs, are chemical compounds that evaporate under normal indoor conditions. They are emitted from a large number of products, including petroleum fuels, pharmaceuticals, dry cleaning agents and refrigerants. Paint is a leading source of VOC emissions, second only to fossil fuels. According to the Environment Protection Agency (EPA), VOC levels average two to five times higher indoors than outdoors, and researchers believe that is mainly due to the VOCs in paints, which build up over time in enclosed spaces.
VOCs commonly found in paint include formaldehyde, chloride, methylene and benzene. You are probably familiar with some of these names. Benzene is a recognized human carcinogen. Formaldehyde is a well-known toxin. Exposure to VOCs has been shown to cause both acute and chronic health problems. Professional painters are especially susceptible to these health problems because of their long-term, close-up exposure to VOCs in the products they apply, day in and day out.
Levels of VOCs in Paint
The federal government caps the VOC content in paint at 250 grams per liter (g/l) for flat finishes and 380 g/l for other finishes (low-luster, semigloss, etc.). This is better than the amounts found in pre-Clean Air Act paints and coatings, but these levels still come with significant health risks for painters and homeowners.
Unfortunately, there is no precise low-VOC standard for non-industrial paints. However, most major paint manufacturers offer low-VOC paints that are in the 50g/l range. No-VOC paints are also now available. These paints generally have VOC levels of less than 5 g/l VOCs.
|High VOC|| 50 g/l — 250 g/l|
|Low VOC|| Less than 50 g/l|
|No VOC||Less than 5 g/l|
Although there are no federal standards for labeling a paint low or zero-VOC, there are third parties that help identify healthier options by certifying paints that meet their strict VOC regulations. These include Greenguard, Scientific Certification Systems (SCS), and Green Seal. Detailed information on VOC content and recommended safety precautions can also be found on each product’s material safety data sheet (MSDS).
It’s important to know that VOCs are often added to base paint when it is tinted. Darker tints especially can add up to 150 grams of VOCs per liter. SQAQMD Rule 113, which originated in California, has become recognized nationwide and regulates VOCs both in the paint base and in tint additions.
The health risks of VOCs are serious. Some people experience symptoms soon after exposure to VOCs. These short-term symptoms can include:
- Eye, nose and throat irritation
- Breathing difficulties
- Mental confusion
Regular exposure to the VOCs in paint has been linked to long-term problems, including asthma-like labored breathing, headaches, nausea, fatigue, dizziness, nose bleeds, poor coordination, skin irritation and memory impairment. Over time, significant exposure like that experienced by professional painters may cause damage to the liver, kidneys or central nervous system or even cancer.
The lower the level of VOCs in a paint, the less the risk of serious health issues. However, even paints without VOCs may contain other harmful solvents and additives like ammonia or acetone, so it’s important to check. Regulator Green Seal tests and certifies latex paints for 25 toxic chemicals, including heavy metals.
What Level of VOC is Dangerous?
The health effects of VOCs vary widely, according to the EPA, depending on “the type and concentration of chemical in the air; the length of time a person is exposed to the chemical; and a person’s age, pre-existing medical conditions and individual susceptibility.”
The bottom line is that VOCs at any level are unhealthy for painters, homeowners and children. It's best to use products with minimal VOC levels whenever possible.
How Long are VOCs Dangerous?
VOCs are dangerous as long as they are being released in gaseous form from wet or dry paint. Off-gassing is strongest during and immediately after painting a surface. This means that painters get the strongest dose of VOCs. However, it doesn’t mean the danger passes immediately. And smell is not an accurate test of toxicity. Some of the more powerful organic compounds released through off-gassing can’t be smelled by humans.
The duration and intensity of paint-related off-gassing depend on the type of paint used, how long it takes to cure and how many coats are applied. Off-gassing from most latex paints lasts for about three to five years but can continue under some conditions for up to 10 years. This long risk time frame is what makes high-VOC paints dangerous for homeowners.
Should I Avoid Using Paints With VOCs?
Why are VOCs in paint at all? They help make paints colorfast and durable and improve coverage. Early low-VOC paints were lacking in these qualities and performed poorly. However, market demand has increased as people recognize the benefits of reducing VOCs; manufacturers have responded by producing quality low- and no-VOC products that dry quickly, cover well and last a long time.
There are no safe VOC paints. The only way to avoid toxic off-gassing is to use no-VOC alternatives and the industry is heading steadily in this direction. No-VOC paints now come in a wide range of colors, are readily available, and can be found at considerably lower prices than in the past. There are fewer and fewer reasons every year not to utilize these options.
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