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It's practically a ritual of summer: Stop by the hardware store, grab a bunch of paint samples, mull over colors and have a few cans of paint mixed up. Painting a room is one of the easiest and least expensive home projects and the results are almost immediate. Who doesn't love the look of a freshly painted room?
What many homeowners don't realize, however, is that some of the ingredients in paint can affect a home's indoor air quality. It's common practice to open the windows before you open a can of paint. But those odors that new-paint smell that many people love are telling you something. So are the irritated eyes, nose and throat, as well as the headaches and dizziness that sometimes occur when you're painting a room.
The Environmental Protection Agency considers paint one of the top environmental hazards in the home, along with asbestos, radon and toxic mold. Though lead-based paint is the major environmental concern, toxins known as volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, in many types of paints are a growing concern.
What Are VOCs?
VOCs are chemical compounds including solvents used during the manufacture of paints and other building materials. Volatile refers to the fact that the chemicals vaporize, or become a gas, at room temperature, and organic indicates that the chemicals contain carbon, which is flammable.
Benzene, toluene, xylene and perchloroethylene are examples of VOCs. Until recently, the use of these chemicals was essential to ensure the paint formed a film once it dried.
Once the paint has dried, most of the VOCs have evaporated; the drier the paint, the more difficult it is for the solvent to transform into an airborne gas. The emission rate of these toxins, then, is considerably lower over the weeks and months following the application of the paint. It's the first few hours, as the paint is being applied and as it's drying, that causes concern.
A growing awareness of the VOC problem and many homeowners desire for improved indoor air quality has prompted manufacturers to develop nontoxic paints that have fewer negative effects on the environment. In the paint world, these products are referred to as low-VOC paints.
A low-VOC paint is similar in its chemistry to conventional paint, except it uses little to no petroleum-based solvents in the paint formation, explains Scott Lewis, assistant brand manager at ICI Paints, which makes Glidden and other brands of paint. It means that the only thing given off by the drying paint is water. We use raw materials that we know to contain very little or no petroleum solvents. As far as quality, you can find them at the same quality level as you would any other paint.
When it comes to price, low-VOC paints cost about the same as standard paints with VOCs, according to Lewis. Why, then, do manufacturers continue to produce paints with VOCs in them, and why would homeowners want to buy them?
VOCs in latex paints play two important roles, explains Carl Minchew, director of product development at Benjamin Moore & Co. First, they slow the drying time of the coating. This is useful because it allows the paint to remain wet longer, which can aid in application. Second, VOCs are used to help the latex coalesce, especially at lower temperatures. Using [fewer VOCs] requires a challenging balance between film hardness and low-temperature coalescence.
To create low-VOC paints that do not release significant pollutants but achieve the same results as conventional paints, companies must use alternative manufacturing techniques. When you take the VOCs out, you have to find ways to overcome several things, Minchew says. Making the paint coalesce and dry is one that we have figured out in the case of most finishes, but in some cases, there is a benefit to using paints with a little bit of VOC.
Such is the case for those homeowners who may not be that adept at applying quick-dry paints. Quick-dry paints present a benefit in one sense, because you apply the paint and within a couple of hours, it is as dry as it is going to get, for all practical purposes, Minchew says. But, as you are applying the paint, you must work in smaller sections, and you have to be careful not to work back into an area that is already dried [which can result in striping]. It requires a little more knowledge and understanding about the product.
There are two primary reasons homeowners might opt to buy a low-VOC paint. The first is out of concerns for the health of the home's occupants. Many people report problems when painting in occupied buildings, notes Terry Brennan, a scientist and educator who operates his own consulting firm, Camroden Associates, based in Westmoreland, N.Y. Complaints range from nuisance to nausea to dizziness, to eye, nose, and throat irritation.
Social consciousness also might drive homeowners to choose a low-VOC paint. Any type of VOC accumulates in the atmosphere and contributes to ozone formation, Minchew says. The current science says that the less of this we emit, the better so there is a larger social benefit to using lower-VOC products.
In addition, individuals with allergies or chemical sensitivities will want to choose paints with low or no VOCs.
When shopping for nontoxic paints, homeowners will find themselves faced with a number of options, including natural, low-odor and no-VOC (or VOC-free) paints, in addition to low-VOC paints. The differences often are subtle, but it's helpful to know what you're getting before you buy.
Low-VOC paints The VOC concentration in paints varies from brand to brand. The EPA specifies that for a latex paint to be labeled as low-VOC, it can contain a maximum of 250 grams of VOCs per liter, while oil-based paints can contain no more than 380 grams per liter. However, Green Home Building Guidelines from the National Association of Home Builders recommend flat interior latex paints with VOC concentrations of no more than 100 grams per liter, and non-flat paints with no more than 150 grams per liter.
Read the label to determine the VOC content in any paint you buy. Benjamin Moores Pristine Eco Spec interior latex flat paint, for instance, is formulated so VOCs do not exceed 50 grams per liter.
When choosing low-VOC paints, keep in mind that additives like mildew retardants can add to the VOC levels. Also, make sure that in addition to low VOC levels, the paint you choose contains no solvents and heavy metals, which are not included in VOC calculations.
No-VOC paints Also known as VOC-free or zero-VOC paints, these products contain few (under 5 grams per liter) or no VOCs. Keep in mind that tinting can add a small amount of VOCs to the paint, so if you want a paint completely free of VOCs, you'll have to settle for white. Products such as AFM Safecoat and Lifemaster 2000 from ICI contain no VOCs.
Natural paints Using only natural materials such as oils, gums, resins, clay, chalk and wax as well as natural pigments, these nontoxic paints have a minimal impact on the environment and can be recycled. BioShield makes paints, stains, thinners and waxes from such ingredients as citrus peel extracts, tree resins, seed oils and beeswax, while The Old Fashioned Milk Paint Co. uses milk protein and lime (technically calcium-caseinate) to make its paint, which comes in a powder form and is available in 16 colors.
Low-odor paints While a low-VOC paint is usually a low-odor paint, the opposite is not necessarily true. In other words, some low-odor paints are not low-VOC paints. Fumes can be masked, so be sure to check labels to ensure the paint is low in VOCs.
Seals of Approval
To guide you in choosing a nontoxic paint, environmental organizations have devised methods of assessing the various available products. There are a number of groups rating manufactured products in terms of VOCs, Brennan says. For instance, Green Seal screens paints by VOC content and comparison to generated standards. GreenGuard screens them by emission testing and internally generated standards.
To receive Green Seal certification, a flat interior latex paint can have no more than 50 grams of VOCs per liter, while a non-flat paint can have no more than 150 grams per liter. In addition, restrictions are placed on the use of a large number of chemical and aromatic compounds.
GreenGuard looks at specific levels of VOCs in the paint as well as the levels of formaldehyde and styrene, the latter of which is classified as a possible carcinogen by the EPA.
There's one additional point to keep in mine when shopping for low-VOC paints: their development is still in the early stages, says Minchew.
We have been developing conventional latex paints for almost 50 years, and they have evolved to a very high state of performance, he notes. In terms of taking this latex material and making it work without VOCs, we are relatively early in that evolution. We have products that work quite well, and in many cases are a direct replacement and shouldn't cause any concern whatsoever, but there is still development work being done.
However, he concludes, These paints are only going to get better as time goes on.
Carolyn Heinze ( firstname.lastname@example.org ) is a freelance writer/editor and a frequent
contributor to Smart HomeOwner.