Minding your VOCs: Indoor air quality and painting
After spending hours poring (or even battling) over swatches, there’s nothing quite as transformative – and therapeutic – as deploying a drop cloth, breaking out a roller tray, and treating a room in your home with a fresh coat of paint.
Selecting the perfect Pantone-approved shade, performing a flawless prep job, and applying the paint in a methodic, mess-free manner are generally the top concerns when painting, whether you’re committing a couple of hours to a quick cosmetic touch-up in the kitchen or completely making over the guest room in a lovely shade of Benjamin Moore Vanilla Milk Shake (you fought hard for that one).
However, one crucial aspect of interior painting is sometimes overlooked: the detrimental effect that a fresh, glossy coat of paint can have on the indoor air quality of your home. While cracking open a window for ventilation to avoid a throbbing, fume-induced headache is standard practice when painting indoors, it’s also important to seek out a paint with low or no VOCs (volatile organic compounds) as your freshly painted room can continue to emit these ozone-producing, health-compromising gases long after the window has been closed and the painters tape has been removed.
Through studies, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has found that the presence of several organic (carbon-based) pollutants are two to five times higher indoors than they are outdoors and that elevated concentrations of these pollutants can persist long after a certain activity, such as painting a room, has ceased. VOC levels reach a noxious high during and immediately after painting, and continue to slowly off-gas for days – even years – after the paint has dried and the room, once again, has been inhabited. In fact, a mere 50 percent of VOCs contained within paint are released within the first year of application.
Found not only in house paints but in a variety of home improvement products such as finishes, stains, cleaners, waxes, air fresheners and wood preservatives along with carpeting and furniture, VOCs have been linked to a variety of long- and short-term health woes including eye irritation and respiratory problems; nausea; dizziness and headaches; and kidney, liver and central nervous system damage. Exposure to some VOCs have even been linked to cancer.
As mentioned, the key to avoiding the release of VOCs in your home is to simply opt for interior latex paints that contain a low amount (less than 250 g/L per EPA standards) or, better yet, none at all (a bit of a misnomer as “zero-VOC” paints do contain a negligible amount of less than 5 g/L per EPA standards). Keep in mind that adding pigment can slightly raise a can of paint’s VOC levels.
Although VOCs were long believed to be essential to paint’s performance and durability, many trusted manufacturers such as Benjamin Moore, Valspar, Devoe, Glidden, Sherwin-Williams and Behr have reformulated their water-based latex paints to contain minimal or close-to-zero petrochemical-based pollutants. More often than not, these low-odor “green” paints are widely available and can be found in all of the same colors as their conventional, oil-based counterparts. Some brands such as YOLO Colorhouse, a sustainability-minded, self-described “indie” paint company out of Portland, Ore. that’s motto is “We believe the world can be more colorful, less volatile,” have gone above and beyond zero-VOC status and produced paints that are completely free of other questionable ingredients such as formaldehyde and phthalates. Mythic Paint, Farrow & Ball and Bioshield are also respected makers of quality nontoxic and/or natural interior paints to look out for.
If in doubt, seek out paints and paint products that sport certification from Green Seal or the Greenguard Environmental Institute (part of UL Environment). Paints marked with the Greenguard Indoor Air Quality Certified logo have been independently, scientifically tested to ensure that the content of the paints themselves contain low amounts of VOCs and, most importantly, are also low-emitting once applied.
Steering clear of VOCs and other potentially health-compromising chemicals while painting or performing other home improvement projects doesn’t end at what kind of paint you choose: Be sure to look for low-emitting primers, finishes, adhesives, thinners, stains, cleanup solvents and other related products. Of course, it’s crucial to circulate and ventilate the air around your home while painting and place a bowl or two of white vinegar in a room to help to absorb any lingering odors.
Finally, when all is said and done, be sure to store any leftover paint in a safe place away from heat and cold, pets and curious tykes (and it’s also recommended to turn the can upside down when storing). If unwanted, recycle leftover paint or haul it to your local hazardous household waste collection site. If in doubt regarding proper disposal, follow the manufacturer’s recommendations as listed on the label.
Here’s to happy, healthy painting!
This article was written for UL by Mother Nature Network, 2013.