Thursday, June 14, 2012

What does low VOC mean on my paint?

I think there comes a point in every expecting parent's life that the topic of painting comes up.  At some point, I think many soon-to-be parents think about painting their child's bedroom.  I started learning about paint when I wrote my post about lead paint.  I always thought that the issue of paint being "hazardous" was limited to older homes.  However, I found that even new paints has its own dangers.

Newer paints may contain substances called "volatile organic compounds."  Examples of Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC) "are gasoline, benzene, formaldehyde, solvents such as toluene and xylene, and perchloroethylene (or tetrachloroethylene), the main solvent used in dry cleaning."  According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), examples of VOC's "include: paints and lacquers, paint strippers, cleaning supplies, pesticides, building materials and furnishings, office equipment such as copiers and printers, correction fluids and carbonless copy paper, graphics and craft materials including glues and adhesives, permanent markers, and photographic solutions.  All of these products can release organic compounds while you are using them, and, to some degree, when they are stored.  Concentrations of many VOCs are consistently higher indoors (up to ten times higher) than outdoors.  Studies have found that levels of several organics average 2 to 5 times higher indoors than outdoors. During and for several hours immediately after certain activities, such as paint stripping, levels may be 1,000 times background outdoor levels."  It is the release, or "off-gas" of VOCs from these products that are of concern.  "Although VOC levels are highest during and soon after painting, they continue seeping out for several years. In fact, only 50 percent of the VOCs may be released in the first year."

The main concern "indoors is the potential for VOCs to adversely impact the health of people that are exposed."  The EPA states that VOCs may cause the following 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 irritation, nose and throat discomfort, headache, allergic skin reaction, dyspnea, declines in serum cholinesterase levels, nausea, emesis, epistaxis, fatigue, dizziness."  The people who are at greater risk from VOC exposure are: "persons with respiratory problems such as asthma, young children, elderly, and persons with heightened sensitivity to chemicals may be more susceptible to irritation and illness from VOCs."

To limit exposure, the EPA recommends the following Steps to Reduce Exposure:
"Increase ventilation when using products that emit VOCs. Meet or exceed any label precautions. Do not store opened containers of unused paints and similar materials within the school. Formaldehyde, one of the best known VOCs, is one of the few indoor air pollutants that can be readily measured. Identify, and if possible, remove the source. If not possible to remove, reduce exposure by using a sealant on all exposed surfaces of paneling and other furnishings. Use integrated pest management techniques to reduce the need for pesticides.
  • Use household products according to manufacturer's directions.
  • Make sure you provide plenty of fresh air when using these products.
  • Throw away unused or little-used containers safely; buy in quantities that you will use soon.
  • Keep out of reach of children and pets.
  • Never mix household care products unless directed on the label.
They also recommend following label instructions carefully, throw away partially full containers of old or unneeded chemicals safely, buy limited quantities, keep exposure to emissions from products containing methylene chloride (found in pain strippers, adhesive removers and spray paints) to a minimum, keep exposure to benzene to a minimum (a known human carcinogen found in environmental tobacco smoke, stored fuels and paint supplies, and automobile emissions in attached garages), and keep exposure to perchloroethylene emissions from newly-dry cleaned materials to a minimum."

The website,, has a great explanation of how VOC's are emitted from paint.
"Paint is typically made of three major components:

  • Pigment: gives the paint its color
  • Binders: also known as the vehicle or medium, binders help the pigment stick to the applied surface.
  • Solvents: sometimes called carrier or thinner, keep the paint in liquid form, making it easier to apply.

Of these three components, the solvents contribute the most to the paint's level of VOCs. That's because the solvent (a liquid) is designed to evaporate quickly, leaving only the pigment and its binder (the solids) behind on your walls. Paints with a greater percentage of solids typically leave more pigment behind, thus requiring fewer applications.

Solvents tend to be either oil-based (high VOC content) or water-based (low or no VOC content). Latex paint, which has lower VOC levels and is generally more environmentally friendly than oil-based paints, uses water-based solvents."

With all of this in mind, how do you select the "right" paint that is "low or no VOC?"  Unfortunately, according to the EPA, "the norms and requirements currently used within the product labeling and certification industry for indoor products are not standardized. The government or third-party organization has not yet established the ground rules to craft consistent, protective standard test methods to rate and compare products and materials. This lack of standardization makes it difficult for the consumer to fully understand what the labels and certifications mean in most cases."  While there is no "standardized certification," the following website offers some helpful hints when choosing an appropriate paint.

Now that I am pregnant and have a toddler in the house, I've become more acutely aware of the dangers of what seemed like a simple task.  It seems that we are surrounded by many chemicals that we cannot control our exposure to.  However, if I am going to paint, that is one point of exposure that I can control and minimize.  I like to think of my home as their sanctuary and hate to think they may be exposed to such environmental pollution within our home.  Even though it may cost a little more money, I think it is worth finding paint that is low VOC if my children will be exposed to it.

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