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Non-Toxic Paint: The VOC Low-Down

While we all wish we could spend more time outdoors, as a society we still end up spending on average 90% of our time indoors. Studies conducted by the EPA show that indoor air pollutant levels can be anywhere from 2 to 5, all the way up to 100, times worse than outdoor pollutant levels. Because of this increased amount of time spent indoors, we must be conscious of what we bring into our homes. Traditional paint is one of the largest contributors to poor indoor air quality. When you think about the indoor spaces you occupy, paint typically covers the largest percentage of square footage: walls, cabinetry, trim, furniture, and doors. Naturally it would make sense to use the healthiest paint possible in the spaces you spend the most time. So let’s dive into what makes paint healthy.

The biggest buzz word in most paint discussions lately is VOC content. VOC’s, or volatile organic compounds, are carbon-containing compounds which turn into gases at room temperature. Essentially “VOC” is a large blanket term which encompasses hundreds of compounds, not all of which are detrimental to our health. For instance, trees emit VOC’s like isoprene and monoterpenes, but they pose no threat to human health; they just provide a pleasant “tree” scent. VOC’s like formaldehyde, aldehydes, benzene, toluene, styrene, xylene, and dibutyl and biethyl phthalate commonly found in traditional paint, however, can be dangerous to one’s health. Exposure to VOC’s from traditional latex- and oil-based paint can cause minor issues like headaches, eye, throat, or nose irritation or more serious issues such as cancer, kidney, liver, or central nervous system damage after prolonged or repeated exposure.

VOC levels in paint are measured in grams per liter. The EPA sets the cap of VOC content in paint at 250 grams per liter (g/l) for flat sheens and 380 g/l for all other higher sheens (eggshell, semi-gloss). Not all low-VOC paints, however, are created equally. Some companies go the extra mile by complying with even more strict standards set by California’s South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD). They set their max VOC emissions at 50 g/l. Paint off-gasses VOC’s as it dries and even continues to release VOC’s for years after it has cured, so the lower the initial amount of VOC content in the paint, the better. VOC’s are also present in the colorant added to paint, so be sure to look for a paint company like Mythic or Dunn Edwards which have a zero-VOC colorant system as well as a low or zero-VOC paint base.

VOC’s initially became a topic of interest because of the role they played in smog creation. The EPA began to regulate VOC emissions once it was discovered that certain VOC’s were reacting with nitrogen oxides in the troposphere (ground-level air) in the presence of sunlight to form ozone. While ozone is necessary in certain parts of the earth’s atmosphere, it is detrimental to our health if we breath it. So using a zero-VOC paint on the outside of your home is just as important to the air we all breath as it is to the air you breath in your own home. Further still, some chemicals like acetone are technically VOC’s, but are not classified as such because of their inability to produce smog. Ammonia is also found in many paint products. Both ammonia and acetone are still irritants and should be avoided when searching for healthy paint.Seeking out zero-VOC paint is a good start, but that’s not all she wrote. Another chemical to be on the lookout for in paint is ethylene glycol, aka anti-freeze. Ethylene glycol is commonly used as a solvent in paint and listed as a Toxic Air Contaminant (TAC) and Hazardous Air Pollutant (HAP), because it can have adverse effects on one’s health. It is toxic when ingested and can cause respiratory tract irritation when inhaled. Non-toxic paint manufacturers have substituted propylene glycol in its place. This safer solvent is commonly used in pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, and as a food preservative.

TreeHouse is a great place to start your painting journey! We carry Dunn Edwards paint, which is low- or zero-VOC, ethylene glycol free, come in thousands of color options, and perform as well as its competitors. Our paint experts can walk you through color options, product selection, and even color match if you still cannot find the right color for your home. Schedule an in-store color consultation or just come by the store!