Traditional paints contain VOC’s (volatile organic compounds), which is the “smell” in paints and are toxic to humans and the environment. VOC’s contribute to air pollution and global warming; and can contaminate ground water and soil. It becomes a problem in homes where VOC’s can be present at as much as 1000 times greater than out door air (typically after painting or paint stripping)!
The EPA says this about the health effects of VOC exposure:
Eye, nose, and throat irritation; headaches, loss of coordination, nausea; damage to liver, kidney, and central nervous system. Some organics can cause cancer in animals; some are suspected or known to cause cancer in humans. Key signs or symptoms associated with exposure to VOCs include conjunctival irritation, nose and throat discomfort, headache, allergic skin reaction, dyspnea, declines in serum cholinesterase levels, nausea, emesis, epistaxis, fatigue, dizziness.
The ability of organic chemicals to cause health effects varies greatly from those that are highly toxic, to those with no known health effect. As with other pollutants, the extent and nature of the health effect will depend on many factors including level of exposure and length of time exposed. Eye and respiratory tract irritation, headaches, dizziness, visual disorders, and memory impairment are among the immediate symptoms that some people have experienced soon after exposure to some organics. At present, not much is known about what health effects occur from the levels of organics usually found in homes. Many organic compounds are known to cause cancer in animals; some are suspected of causing, or are known to cause, cancer in humans. For more information on health effects, see EPA’s Substance Registry System on VOCs.
We recently painted several rooms in our house using a low-VOC paint. And zero VOC paint is becoming more popular and accessible. We actually used Benjamin Moore’s Harmony paint, which is zero-VOC but because we did color-matching, the tint added a small amount of VOCs. So watch for this if you truly want a zero VOC paint. The great thing was the odor was very minimal and we easily slept in our room the night it was painted! It was actually odd not having days of over-powering paint smell. We still ventilated the areas we painted.
These paints are just as good and durable as traditional paints. There are only 2 cons: there can be limited paint options because the colors are premixed which is how they are able to produce a zero VOC paint. Low-VOC paints can do color-matching. The other con is it is a little more expensive. A gallon is typically $35-$50.
Zero VOC paints include:
Yolo Colorhouse (premixed colors)
Harmony by Benjamin Moore
Natura by Benjamin Moore (available on the west coast, nation-wide in Spring 2009)
Freshaire Choice, available exclusively at Home Depot
Olympic has a zero-VOC line
Low-VOC paints include:
Aura by Benjamin Moore
GreenSeal is an organization that certifies zero- and low-VOC paints. You can view their list here:
Earth Easy has an even wider list of zero-, low- and eco-friendly natural paints.
The Today Show did a segment on green painting this morning. Check it out here.
Besides in paint, VOC’s are found in many common household products including paint strippers, and other solvents; wood preservatives; aerosol sprays; cleansers and disinfectants; moth repellents and air fresheners; stored fuels and automotive products; hobby supplies; dry-cleaned clothing.