The growing popularity of environmentalism has led to the rise on ostensibly labeled green products. This practice has not spared the paint industry. In an industry notorious for producing toxic chemicals—from oils to acrylics to watercolors—paints contain substances that are potentially harmful to humans and the environment.
The paint and coating industry—like more and more manufacturing companies—is offering “Low VOC” or “Zero VOC” products. While these labels sound positive, it’s important to understand exactly what they mean so you can make an informed decision when buying paint or coating for your facilities.
Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) are carbon-based chemicals that easily evaporate into the air at room temperature. Harmful VOCs are not always acutely toxic, but they have compounding long-term health effects. They can cause headaches and nausea, and even damage to livers, kidneys. High levels of VOCs in the workplace (above 500 μg/m3) can also result in lower productivity.
When you smell “new paint” you are inhaling VOCs— that could include fungicides, formaldehyde, ethylene glycol, and benzene. Spending too much time around toxic fumes from paint has been proven to worsen sinusitis and asthma symptoms. When inhaled, the solvents invade the lungs and the upper respiratory tract. Once in the lungs, fumes quickly gain access to the bloodstream. Large quantities of solvents in the blood can lead to shortness of breath, dizziness and in some cases, blackout.
High levels of VOC’s in paint could particularly affect asthma and sinusitis patients. VOCs can also cause severe irritation to the throat and eyes, and a burning sensation to the nasal membranes.
A good solution is purchasing paints with low or no VOCs. They can be more expensive than traditional paints, but could be worth the added expense. There are several levels of VOCs to choose from. Below are tips to consider before purchasing green paints.
It helps to think of the difference between low-VOC’s and no-VOCs in paint as the difference between foods labeled “natural” and “organic.” Per their name, low-VOC paints feature have reduced amounts of volatile organic compounds compared to traditional paints, so they don’t let off as many harmful chemicals as traditional paints. Many brands offer low-VOC paints, including Behr and Para.
Unfortunately, VOCs are more expensive than regular paints. They also require more coats upon application. The level of VOCs is also listed on the label.
A label that reads “Zero-VOC,” does not mean that the paint does not contain VOCs, it just means that the level of VOCs in the paint falls below the government regulated amount permissible. According to wisegeek.com, “In the United States, a paint product can be referred to as Zero VOC if it has amounts of volatile organic compounds at or below 5 grams per liter of paint. Adding color pigment to Zero VOC paint can increase the amount of volatile organic compounds as much as 10 grams per liter. Zero VOC paint can also contain other potentially harmful compounds; however, even at levels of 10 grams per liter, it is considered a far safer alternative to non-Zero VOC paints.”
While Zero-VOC paint can be better than paints with higher contaminants, there are a couple of things to consider before you purchase Zero-VOC paint. According to Fordham & MacLean Painting:
Walls coated with no VOC paints should not be cleaned with ammonia-based cleaning products, and they should not be cleaned for 30 days after initial application. Mild soap and water is recommended when removing dirt and stains.
Because these paints do not contain fungicides, they are subject to micro-bacterial contamination. It is recommended that painting tools not be put directly into the paint can. Separate containers should be used, and the paint should be sealed as soon as possible and stored in a cool, dry place.
More coats might be necessary in order to achieve the same results as regular VOC paints. Coverage of no VOC paint continues to improve, but in most instances two coats are required to obtain full coverage.