House Painting with VOCs: A Simple Breakdown of Volatile Organic Compounds


EDITOR'S SUMMARY: There is a great deal to consider today for healthy living—what you eat and drink, the types of cosmetics and body care items you use, household cleaning products, and the list goes on. It can feel overwhelming and unending; enough to throw in the towel at times. The truth is that the chemical industry has become a behemoth—enormous, monstrous, and powerful. So each day you wake up, you have the opportunity to raise your awareness by learning something new, and make the best choices you can, for all things that influence the health of your family, yourself, and the communities that surround you.


Written by Robyn Chittister
Edited by Nicki Steinberger, Ph.D.


Congratulations! You’re having a baby, or a career change, or an existential crisis that can only be solved by painting a room. Soon, you’ll be breathing in the lovely smell of fresh paint! 


Said no one ever.


Nope, when you walk into a freshly painted room, you’re more likely to channel a line from fiction writer Christina Casino: “When the smell all around you is so stained that it gags you…”


Before throwing a gas mask into the cart with that can of “Forest Blue,” you ought to know that fresh paint often smells the way it does due to volatile organic compounds, or VOCs.


According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), volatile organic compounds are chemicals that have a high vapor pressure and low water solubility, and are emitted as gasses from certain solids or liquids. 


Although there are naturally occurring VOCs, many VOCs are human-made. Commonly known VOCs include pentane, propane, toluene, xylene, acetone, formaldehyde, methylene, and benzene. Some VOCs are known or suspected carcinogens


In the United States, only the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates VOCs, and even then, the regulations apply only to food, drugs, and personal care products. 


The EPA regulates some household products thanks to the Clean Air Act (CAA). However, these regulations are in place when a compound photochemically reacts to produce ozone, a component of smog. 


The EPA has no authority to regulate indoor air quality. Therefore, some products containing VOCs may be labeled “low VOC” or “no VOC” under the CAA, while containing toxic levels of VOCs. 


No federal agency has the authority to collect information about the chemical contents of products available in the marketplace.


VOCs are found in cleaning products, paint and paint-related liquids, pesticides, building materials, furniture, and thousands of other common items. All of these products release VOCs while you’re using them, and sometimes when they’re stored


Concentrations of VOCs can remain in the air long after the products have been used. This is important to know when you’re painting your baby’s nursery, new in-law unit, or any other space where humans or animals roam.


Writer, Emilie Sennebogen, had this to say in “How long does paint emit VOCs into the air?”:


As for how these VOCs stay in the air, it depends on how well you ventilate the area during and after painting, as well as how many VOCs were in the paint you were using. They decrease slowly over time, but a fan and some open windows will go a long way in helping to rid the air of the unhealthy fumes. Experts won't go on record with across-the-board statements for how long this can take, but brand new homes that have a multitude of materials and products that emit VOCs have been known to remain "toxic" for many months after construction is completed.”



Health Risks

According to the Minnesota Department of Health, exposure to VOCs can cause eye, nose, and throat irritation; nausea or vomiting; dizziness; and asthma symptoms. Long-term exposure to VOCs can cause cancer and damage to the liver, kidneys, and nervous system. 


In addition, children, the elderly, and people with respiratory problems or sensitivity to chemicals are more susceptible to the effects of VOCs. 


The agency states:


Breathing in low levels of VOCs for long periods of time may increase some people’s risk of health problems. Several studies suggest that exposure to VOCs may make symptoms worse for people with asthma or who are particularly sensitive to chemicals. These are much different exposures than occupational exposures.”


Ask yourself… Are YOU sensitive to chemicals? Or have you grown accustomed to their widespread exposure? 


Research from PLOS ONE, in a 2010 study, “Common Household Chemicals and the Allergy Risks in Pre-School Age Children,” concluded that exposure to common household chemicals, including products that contain VOCs, particularly during sleep, “exacerbate and/or induce” allergies, asthma, and eczema. 


The study went on to explain:


Two recent reviews of the literature identified indoor residential chemicals, emitted from particle board, plastic materials, recent painting, home cleaning agents, air freshener, pesticide, and insecticide, consistently increase the risks of multiple allergic symptoms and asthma-like symptoms.”


In 2012, a research design from National Institutes of Health (NIH) titled, “Non-occupational exposure to paint fumes during pregnancy and risk of congenital anomalies: a cohort study,” showed that exposure to paint during pregnancy may increase the risk of certain congenital anomalies, so it may be wise to avoid painting during pregnancy. 


The study showed:


Ethanol is the most known and widely used organic solvent. Excessive intake of ethanol during pregnancy may lead to the foetal alcohol syndrome. This syndrome includes characteristic facial anomalies of the affected child, growth retardation and permanent central nervous system damage and is also associated with an increased risk of congenital anomalies in several organ systems.”


In Paint Specifically

Paint is the second largest source of VOC emissions into the atmosphere, after automobiles. VOCs are added to paint for better open time and freeze/thaw resistance, as well as providing a protective coating that is durable and maintains its color over time. 


The volume of VOCs in paint is measured in grams per liter (g/L):


  • Low VOC paints can contain a maximum of 150 g/L.
  • Ultra-low VOC paints can contain a maximum of 50 g/L.
  • Zero VOC paints can contain a maximum of 5 g/L. 


The numbers on the can of paint don’t include the VOCs in the paint’s pigment or additives. Pigments can add up to 10 g/L of VOCs, so pay attention to each and every can. 


The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has decreed that companies cannot claim their paints are emission-free, or VOC-free unless a VOC hasn’t been intentionally added to the paint, and the paint content and emissions are zero or are at trace levels from the time of application. 


“Trace levels” generally follow the Green Guides (Designed by the FTC to assist marketers in not making environmental claims that mislead buyers of their products) “trace amount” test, which requires that the emission level doesn’t “cause material harm"… including harm to the environment or human health.   


Does zero-voc paint really work? You may have heard a friend or neighbor say that no-voc paint won’t stand the test of time, and they don’t want to have to paint again sooner than necessary. Perhaps this discouraged you from choosing a no-voc option.


On the other hand, if it’s good enough for Benjamin Moore & Co., a household name in “all things paint,” with over 7500 locations globally, it may be worth considering. 


Upon demand from their customers, Benjamin Moore & Co. created “Eco Spec,” a line of zero-voc paints in 2008. About Eco Spec, the brand’s “greenest” paint:


The new Eco Spec Interior is a 100% acrylic paint that offers zero VOCs, zero emissions, and low odor. It delivers excellent hide, great touch-up, and quick-drying properties for a fast job turnaround. Also, our patented zero-VOC Gennex colorants ensure that Eco Spec remains zero-VOC, even after tinting.”


Your Alternatives

Water-based paints generally emit lower levels of VOCs. In addition, there are natural paints made from clay, plants, lime, and chalk. While some of these paints don’t contain any VOCs, others may include VOCs from ingredients like citrus oils and terpenes. Milk-based paints generally contain few, if any, VOCs. 


Paints that carry the Green Seal must meet strict environmental standards—lower than 50 g/L for a flat finish, and lower than 100 g/L for a non-flat finish. Colorants in Green Seal certified paints can’t add more than 50 g/L of VOCs.


In the grand tradition of something good for you costing more, no- or low-VOC paints are usually more expensive than traditional paints. Generally speaking, the cheaper the paint, the more VOCs it contains. 


This is one reason to buy only enough paint to finish the project. Another reason? Even low-VOC paints can emit VOCs when stored.


When they first came on the market, no- and low-VOC paints weren’t as colorfast or smooth as traditional VOC paints. However, manufacturers have largely addressed those issues. 


Any certified Green Seal paint must have passed the test for durability. Because more vibrant colors tend to contain more VOCs, you may need to apply two coats of a low-VOC or no-VOC paint, whereas a traditional VOC paint might only require one coat. 


Fortunately, low- and no-VOC paints are relatively easy to find these days. Use your favorite search engine to find reviews of paint brands. For example, Treehugger has a well-documented list of zero-VOC paints.



Tips to Lower Your Exposure

Even when using no- or low-VOC paints, while painting, make sure the area is well-ventilated. Turn on a ceiling fan or bring in a standing fan. You may want to wear a painter’s mask, particularly if you’re allergic to fragrances or have asthma. 


Avoid aerosol paints and painting products. If you’re pregnant, avoid painting during the first trimester, and then use water-based paints. Keep windows open as much as possible for the first one to three days. Take breaks outside of the painted area to get fresh air. 


VOC concentrations are typically higher indoors than outdoors—up to 10 times higher. Although VOCs usually emit odors, some VOCs do not. In addition, VOCs may linger in the air even if you can’t smell them


To remove VOCs from indoor air, use portable air cleaners with activated carbon filters; HEPA filters don’t capture gasses.


Remember that just because a paint isn’t aromatic doesn’t mean it does not contain VOCs. However, if a paint does smell, it almost definitely contains VOCs. 


If you open that can of “no-VOC Forest Blue,” and it smells more like a tannery than a forest, take it back to the store, and ask for the proper base. 


Take this information to heart, and you’ll be on your way to creating a non-toxic space to enjoy for years to come.




Published on April 6, 2023


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