Low-VOC Paint Helps You Breathe Easier

By Joel Karmazyn

Editor’s Note: This is the fifth of a series of posts—during the month of September—focused on simple home improvement tips to help improve your quality of life and the environment.

Did you notice the “new paint smell” the last time you painted your home? That smell comes from the volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, that are added to paint to make it spread easily and dry quickly. VOCs may help your paint dry, but they also cause health and air quality problems. Low-level exposure to VOCs can cause headaches, nausea, and dizziness; higher-level exposures can have more serious health consequences. VOCs also contribute to the creation of summertime ozone and react with other precursor gases to form the fine particulates that cause our winter haze.

Paint is typically made up of three components:

  • Pigment (color)
  • Binder (medium that helps the pigment stick to a surface)
  • Solvent (typically VOCs)

The solvents in paint evaporate as it dries, leaving behind the binder and the pigment. Trouble is, when those VOCs evaporate they get into the air inside and outside your house, causing indoor and outdoor air pollution. Your newly painted room can continue to emit vapors long after the paint dries even if there is no detectable odor. According to Green Seal, less than 50 percent of the VOCs in water-based paint are emitted during the first year after application.

Once these VOCs are emitted into the air, they can combine with nitrogen oxides (NOx) to form fine particulates or NOx and sunlight to form ozone. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and a number of states agencies have enacted regulations on paint and coatings to reduce VOC emissions. For example, federal VOC limits for paints are set at 250 grams per liter (g/l) for flat paints and 380 g/l for others.

Utah has gone one step further. Starting January 1, 2015, Utah rules will limit flat coatings to a VOC level of 50 g/l, and non-flat coatings to 100 g/l. Specialty and industrial grade paints are also regulated and will have to meet low VOC limits as well. These limits apply to paints sold and used in the seven northern Utah counties where wintertime inversions have caused us to exceed national ambient air quality standard (NAAQS) for fine particulates.

Low- and zero-VOC paints have been available in California for some time. The large California consumer market place drives manufacturers to produce universal products, so there is sometimes “spill-over” to Utah. That appears to be the case with some paint products. I recently took a casual stroll down the paint aisle at one of our local big-box stores and noted that nearly every major manufacturer is already meeting the 50 g/l limit for flat paints. In a few cases, I noted that some manufacturers even offer paints lower than 50 g/l. That’s good for our indoor and outdoor air quality!

Environmental ScientistPlanning to paint your home soon? Be sure to check the labels on the paint cans for the VOC content. Some stores even have calculators that let you see how many POUNDS of VOCs you can avoid by using a zero-VOC paint. High-quality, eco-friendly paint options will help you protect your indoor air quality and the air that we all breathe.

I am an environmental scientist at the Utah Division of Air Quality, where I am responsible for policy and planning of minor emission sources. I enjoy traveling, hiking with my dog, and working in my vegetable garden.