Are “zero VOC” paints really VOC free?

by Neal on December 12, 2011

Much of the current discussion about eco-friendly paint has to do with volatile organic compounds, also known as VOCs. These carbon-based substances, which are involved in atmospheric photochemical reactions, not only pollute the air but may also cause breathing and memory problems in people. The buzz surrounding the paint industry’s attempts to minimize VOCs in its products can be more confusing than helpful.

In 2009, Consumer Reports examined VOC levels in water-based paints marketed as VOC free. The magazine also analyzed water-based paints with high ratings that were not billed as “zero VOC.” None of the products in question violated U.S. VOC limits; however, none was entirely free of VOCs, either. In some cases, VOC level and paint performance went hand in hand; in others, the quality of low-VOC paint closely resembled that of traditional paint.

According to government regulations, flat paint’s VOC level may not exceed 250 grams per liter. Other types of paint can include up to 380 grams per liter. Some states with significant pollution problems, like California, have imposed their own VOC policies. Flat paint can have 100 grams per liter at most in California; other paints can’t include more than 150 grams per liter. In the Los Angeles area, the leash is even shorter: All paint is limited to 50 grams per liter.

Laws regarding VOCs in paint only deal with the base. Since tint increases a paint’s VOC content, the level marked on a can may not reflect reality. To put it simply: No tinted paint can ever be truly VOC free. Researchers cannot yet say how much more hazardous a paint with 100 grams of VOCs per liter is than one with, say, half that amount. However, Consumer Reports indicates that a low VOC level is definitely a good thing.

The magazine’s investigation of VOCs in paint concludes with a call to action. Among its recommendations: more conservative national VOC regulations, with particular attention to tints; updated, more accurate methods of measuring VOC levels; and a set of universal criteria for indoor air quality. These proposals suggest that VOCs are no longer something to tolerate quietly, but rather a genuine threat that the government must respond to.

In the paint business, the term “zero VOC” simply means a product contains fewer than 5 grams of VOCs per liter. Nonetheless, the Council of Better Business Bureaus recently advised Sherwin-Williams, one of the industry’s global leaders, to stop claiming that its Harmony line of paints is VOC free. The hot tipper who put the Council on Sherwin-Williams’ trail? None other than the company’s main competitor, Benjamin Moore.

The Council’s analysis revealed that some Harmony paints exceeded the 5-grams-per-liter rule for zero-VOC products. Sherwin-Williams insisted that these violations were the exception, and that advertisements concerning a particular line clearly obviously to the majority of products in that line, not every single one. Ultimately, the Council asked Sherwin-Williams to create more transparent ads — a suggestion the company said it would take into account.

Where does all of this leave the average paint consumer? In a state of healthy skepticism, hopefully. Do not take paint ads that promote low or nonexistent VOC levels at face value. Through research, informed questions at the paint store, and old-fashioned word of mouth, you can — and should — find out what’s really in the paint you buy.

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