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The toxic truth about "low-VOC,” “no-VOC,” or “zero VOC"
Paint Volatile Organic Compound (VOC)

What do you think of when you see the terms “low-VOC,” “no-VOC,” or “zero VOC” on the side of a can of paint? If you’re like most people, you probably think the paint is safer and doesn’t release as many fumes into your indoor air. Maybe you think it’s worth the premium price because it protects the health of your family. Unfortunately, for the most part, you’d be wrong.
What are the levels of VOCs in zero, low, and normal paints?

Federal VOC limits are now set at 250 grams per liter (g/l) for flat paints and 380 g/l for others. But, there’s a patchwork of different standards in states and regions across the U.S. For example, California’s standards are stringent: 150 g/l for non-flat finishes and 100 g/l for flat. And, when you have lower requirements in such a massive economy, it tends to impact the whole industry, so today, a typical can of flat interior latex paint contains about 150 grams per liter of VOCs. Low-VOC is usually 50 g/l or less and no-VOC is usually 5 g/l or less.

Did you catch that first discrepancy? No-VOC and zero-VOC paints can still contain VOCs. But, that’s just the beginning of how misleading these claims are. Allow us to spell out a few other toxic truths:

Toxic Truth #1

Even if you invest in low or no-VOC paint, if you’re adding a conventional color tint, you’re likely defeating your intentions. Typical colorants used to tint paint can be much higher in VOCs and can bump your VOC levels right back up to 100 g/L or more. (FYI – Darker colors tend to have higher VOC levels.)

Toxic Truth #2

VOC content regulations were developed to help reduce outdoor VOC emissions that contribute to the formation of ground ozone and smog. They were not developed to reduce indoor VOC emissions or chemical exposure to building occupants. Since not all VOCs contribute to ozone and smog formation, “low-VOC” or “no-VOC” products may still contain toxic VOCs that can off-gas into the indoor environment (like formaldehyde!)

Toxic Truth #3

Testing shows that VOC content doesn’t exactly correlate to VOC emissions. (We know – it’s confusing.) The “Paint Volatile Organic Compound Emissions and Volatile Organic Compound Content Comparison Study” conducted by the Underwriter’s Laboratory found that oftentimes paints with less VOC content had more VOC emissions and vice versa. There was no way to predict from what was in the paint, what mind end up in the air.

According to the study, “the results demonstrate that paint VOC content should not be used as a proxy for paint VOC emissions into indoor air, as there is no correlation between the two measures. These results demonstrate that low VOC content is not necessarily indicative of acceptable VOC emissions for specific compounds with known health impacts. Thus, building designers, owners and operators,or occupants may be provided a false sense of security regarding the quality of the indoor air.”

What can you do?

Given the fact that most companies have taken advantage of the lack of oversight and regulation and perpetuate marketing messages that blur the truth, you really need to do your research before buying any paint.
For both the paint and the color tint, ask the manufacturer for the MSDS (Material Safety Data Sheet), which should identify the ingredients, so you can identify any of concern that may not fall under federal VOC regulations.