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A Conversation About Paint

What is so important about VOCs?

Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC’s) are chemical compounds containing carbon that, at room temperature, are emitted from substances into the air. The EPA regulates these because they can potentially create smog. Some are toxic, and some are not. That said, VOC’s are everywhere, and there is always a background level of them. Controlling the amount of VOC’s in home improvement products, helps keep indoor air quality in check, but it is not the whole story and certainly not why the EPA regulates them.

Why choose zero-VOC paint?

The simple answer is that VOC content is a simple numeric snapshot of part of what is in paint. Of course, there are many caveats to this (too many to address in a single blog post). But, the simple fact is that we want a quick easy way to tell if the products we are purchasing are harmful or not. VOC content has become that simple number we look for…similar to calories on a food label. And just like calories on a food label, VOCs are not the whole story when it comes to how a product may affect your health.

We ask many questions when vetting new paints for sale at TreeHouse. The main ones are 1. Does this product work well?, and 2. How does this product affect our health? We approach paint from this angle because we believe what people want out of paint is very simple: beauty and performance without sacrificing their personal health. TreeHouse has done the hard part for you, so that you don’t have to spend your valuable time researching.

So why aren’t VOC’s the whole equation? Simply put, other ingredients in paint can affect and contribute to toxicity. For instance, Acetone, which is an affective yet toxic solvent commonly used in latex paint, is not considered by the EPA to be a highly reactive VOC in smog creation. Therefore, it is exempt from counting toward VOC totals. Is it a VOC? Yes. Is it toxic to humans? Yes. Does it count toward the VOC content of paint? No. This is one example of how relying on that VOC number really doesn’t tell the whole story. Part of our process at TreeHouse is to make sure there are no toxic exempt compounds. Accordingly, our zero-VOC paints are truly zero-VOC paints. Remember the EPA is only concerned with smog creation, not necessarily human health.

What about odor? What about using paint in occupied areas? What about using paint where you sleep, or using it in places where you don’t want that paint smell to linger? Most of the time, that “paint smell” is ammonia — a very common solvent in latex paint. And, you guessed it: it DOES NOT count toward VOC content. Why? It doesn’t contain carbon and is no, by definition, an organic compound. Is ammonia toxic? Yes (in the right amounts). Ammonia has a pungent odor, can cause nausea, headaches, and is a sensitizer. The good news is that your body knows how to handle it. Every time you urinate, your body is removing ammonia and other things we do not need. At TreeHouse we have paints with no ammonia (still others have much, much, much less than conventional paints). So why use ammonia in paint? The simple reason is that it is cheap. It is a very inexpensive solvent. Removing it from paint is possible, but safer solvents cost more. That price gets reflected in the cost of the paint. Transparency is important, and we’ll be happy to help you understand which products contain low and no amounts of ammonia.

As you can see, the health question is difficult to completely answer. Performance, however, is typically very easy. There are ASTM standard tests for scrubability, hide, and coverage. Paint can be compared for performance with very hard numbers that are tested in a lab. Basically, performance comes down to the quality of raw ingredients and how much water composes the total amount of paint in a can. A less expensive paint will often have more water in the can. Typically, this will cover less much wall space, hide poorly, and require more coats. At TreeHouse, we’ve chosen paints that perform exceptionally well.

All in all, paint should perform for you, bring beauty and protection to a wall, and not harm you, your family, or the painter. We believe we truly have high performance paint that is non-toxic and available in any color. Just remember that the VOC number is not the whole story. When comparing paint, you really can make it as complex or as simple as you’d like. Ask us at TreeHouse and we will be transparent in helping you find the paint that suits all of your needs: health, performance and price.