A Cleaner Coat

Environmentally friendly paints are catching on—but shop with caution

| July-August 2006

When you step into a hardware store these days, you’re likely to see new lines of paint specially labeled to lure green consumers concerned about exposure to volatile organic compounds, or VOCs. It’s a smart marketing move, since VOCs are a particularly nasty class of airborne gases released when standard wall coatings dry. Unfortunately, the labels “low VOC” and “no VOC” can be misleading.

Do-it-yourselfers need to be aware of a few things: Finding a truly green, clean paint will require a bit of research. It will cost more money. And when it comes to paint labeling and claims, neither the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) nor most big paint makers are always looking out for the health of consumers or the planet. By understanding a few basic facts, though, prospective painters looking for that perfect hue can make better choices.

An easy first step is to use latex paints, which are usually lower in VOCs than oil-based paints. Many consumers have already made the move to latex for the convenience of soap-and-water cleanup.

Then get to know your VOCs. For starters, the EPA’s definition of “low” is based not on an indoor health standard but on an outdoor environmental standard. Consequently, low-VOC paint labels aren’t promising toxin-free air as the paint dries, even though the accompanying marketing campaign (and the friendly store clerk) may imply otherwise. The standard simply ensures that the paint has less than 250 grams of VOCs per liter if it’s latex, and less than 380 grams per liter if it’s oil-based—levels far higher than recommended by many environmental and health experts. To find a paint’s professed VOC content, look at the label or ask for the accompanying material safety data sheet.

Worse, because of EPA rules that lack both precision and teeth, even paint that is labeled “no VOC” may contain VOCs, since paint makers often disclose only the required “nonexempt” VOCs that form smog. Many paints also contain undisclosed preservatives called biocides—literally, “life killers”—that pose hazards for chemically sensitive people and undeveloped fetuses. Finally, adding standard pigments to the paint base to mix and match colors will add more VOCs—typically, the deeper the hue, the higher the VOCs. So even if you start with a low-VOC base, it might be high by the time it comes off the paint shaker.

While current labeling rules leave much to be desired, the EPA is unlikely to address the issue anytime soon. The budget-strapped agency lost its funding for low-VOC research about a decade ago, according to EPA scientist John Chang, who directed the research and whose findings finally were published by the agency in 2001. “Certain paints marketed as ‘low VOC’ may still emit significant quantities of air pollutants,” he concluded.