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Use paint with lowest possible amount of VOC
Use paint with lowest possible amount of VOC

A main issue with household paint is that many ingredients are added to improve the look, longevity and ease of application of the paint. Some of these ingredients are volatile organic compounds (VOCs). According to the EPA, VOCs can cause respiratory, skin, and eye irritation; headaches; nausea; muscle weakness; and more serious ailments and diseases. Formaldehye is one of the common VOCs that is carcinogenic. VOCs evaporate in room temperature. For indoor applications even airing a house is not enough to remove all the VOCs, as low level emission continues to take place for a fairly long period of time.

EPA and many State Air Quality Districts have instituted regulation to reduce amount of VOCs used in paint products. The current EPA limit is no more than 100 grams/liter for flat paint, and 150 grams/liter to 250 grams/liter for other paints. California’s new limit, effective Jan 2011, is 50 grams/liter for flat paint; and different limits ranging between 50 grams/liter to 100 grams/liter for other paints depending on the Air Quality District. Product should carry certification labels, some of these are manufacturer declaration, others are independent third party certifications. Three of the third party certifications are Green Seal, GreenGuard and Scientific Certification System (SCS). See Green Certification for more details.

Clearly, when shopping for paint, look for the lowest possible amount of VOC. This information can be found in the label. In addition, manufacturers publish a Materials Safety Data Sheet for each product, usually available on their websites, listing VOCs and other hazardous materials, the amounts included and potential harmful effects. Note also that the MSDS is required to disclose those materials who amount exceed EPA standards. Certain material in trace amount may not be listed. There are third parties that do testing of paint products. Results of these third party tests can be found in a web site called Pharos.Consider these carefully before buying the paint.

Exterior paints are less likely to affect indoor air quality. It is still prudent to choose paints with low to zero VOC and hazadardous materials to reduce overall environmental pollution.

Regulations for other coatings, such as floor coating, varnish, etc, can be found at EPA’s and local Air Qaulity Districts’ web sites.

Zero VOC Paint

Some paint manufacturers also market “Zero VOC” or “No VOC product. This is all fine and good. Technically, zero means within the tolerance or accuracy of measurement instruments. Hence the paint may still contain a very small amount of VOC, which, according to the EPA, is allowed to be up to 5 grams/liter.

Recycled Paint

Some manufacturers also market “Recycled Paint”. These are typically made using in part left overs (proportion depends on the product). It is a good way to avoid waste. Keep in mind that the product still has to meet the VOC limit you choose. These can be great choices for outdoor applications. Again check the Materials Safety Data Sheet and the Product Description Sheet.


Odor is annoying and it is indicative of the presence of off-gassing material, harmful or not. However, the human nose can be more sensitive than machines in detecting trace amount of odor. Some amount of odor may be unavoidable. Even Zero VOC paints may contain such trace amount of off-gassing material. Allowing ample airing will help mitigate the problem.
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