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The global trend toward environmentally friendly products has made a significant impact on the paint industry. Volatile organic compounds, known as VOCs,
are at the center of many companies’ efforts to provide their customers with “greener” paint. And while VOCs – which act as solvents in traditional house
paint, carrying the pigment – can have real health consequences, consumers should look at the facts, not the hype, when it comes to low-VOC paint. Closer
examination reveals that the subject of eco-friendly paint is more nuanced than marketing buzzwords suggest.
Common VOCs include formaldehyde, benzene, and diethyl phthalate. The odor of drying paint is mostly due to the evaporation of its VOCs. This process,
known as “off-gassing,” has been found to cause asthma attacks, eye irritation, nausea, and headaches in some people. Long-term exposure to VOCs may
even result in cancer or kidney damage.
It’s understandable, then, that VOCs have become a prime target in the movement to make paint eco-friendlier. Over the past few years, many paint makers,
including small brands as well as major players like Benjamin Moore, have released low-VOC lines. Yet there are no universal, mandatory standards for low-
In the U.S., a nonprofit called Green Seal sets standards for green products. These standards are considerably more stringent than those of the
Environmental Protection Agency. Whereas the EPA allows low-VOC paint to contain up to 250 grams of VOCs per liter of latex paint (380 g/L for oil paint),
Green Seal only permits up to 50 grams per liter of flat paint (150 g/L for other types of paint). In addition, Green Seal only certifies paint that doesn’t contain
formaldehyde or a variety of other chemicals. The organization’s standard for paint, GS-11, is based not only on VOC content but also on durability and
performance. Benjamin Moore’s Pristine Eco-Spec is an example of a Green Seal-certified line.
Alternative paints in the marketplace today include low-VOC, “zero-VOC” (a misnomer, as we’ll examine shortly), nontoxic, and natural paint. Voluntary
standards, such as Green Seal’s, don’t take into account the VOCs added to paint when it’s tinted at the store. Furthermore, some paint makers use “low
VOC” merely as a marketing term, the way food companies may use “natural” or even “organic.” Low-VOC paint is confusing enough that the clerks at your
local paint store may be unsure about the label.
Despite its name, “zero-VOC” or “no-VOC” paint simply has a very low VOC content, generally no more than 5 g/L. As Canadian Home Workshop notes: “All
paints have chemicals, colourants, biocides, and fungicides, which all off-gas.” Adding pigment at the paint store can increase the VOC level by 2 to 5 g/L,
but the total should be under 10 g/L – still an extremely low level. Sherwin-Williams’ Harmony line is a popular zero-VOC paint, as is Benjamin Moore’s Natura
line. Both off-gas for a shorter period of time, and less toxically.
If even zero-VOC paint isn’t eco-friendly enough for you, nontoxic or natural paint may meet your needs. Both have the lowest VOC levels available;
unfortunately, they’re pricier and harder to find. Alternative companies, rather than household names like Benjamin Moore, make these paints, which means
you may have to order them online.
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