Beyond VOC’s… Please!

vocThe topic of VOC’s continues to be a catch phrase for all professing ways to improve their indoor environments.  While it’s wonderful that we have started a national dialogue about reducing VOC’s, I feel like we have overlooked the bigger picture in an effort to have a token ‘fall-guy’.  For those who don’t know, VOC stands for Volatile Organic Compounds.  They are a class of chemicals that photochemically react with Nitrogen oxides and UV light to create ozone.  Ozone is wonderful in our upper atmosphere as it helps to control harmful UV light but in our homes and in the air we breathe, it is toxic and dangerous.  Ozone is a major contributor to smog.  Here is the link.

California, in an effort to reduce smog started regulating VOC’s (this was over 30 years ago).  Their research uncovered that a large majority of VOC’s were being generated from what is called ‘architectural coatings’.  These coatings (we’ll take paint as an example) became a major target for California to begin regulating in order to address the major pollution problems they had.  Therefore California set strict standards on VOC’s in coatings.  Since then, many standards for ‘green’ have adopted the montra of ‘low VOC’ in coatings.  Like I said, this is a good thing.  Then what is my point… right?

My point is VOC’s are regulated because of their photochemical reactivity to create ozone, not because they are toxic to us. This is an important distinction… One way to demostrate this is to point out that there are chemicals which have a ‘neglible’ photochemical reaction and don’t contribute to generating ozone.  These Chemicals are called Exempt Solvents.  These ARE VOC’s but, because they don’t create ozone and therefore smog, they are permitted to be included in coatings without having to be counted as a VOC in the product.  An example of this is Acetone.  Highly toxic and even dangerous, acetone is an exempt solvent.  Meaning i could make a paint that has a large quantity of acetone in it but because it is a VOC Exempt Solvent, i can still call it a Zero VOC product.  To show how shady this gets, the Chemical Manufacturer’s Association has published a white paper ( that specifically seeks to guide manufacturers in getting around the VOC regulations by using Exempt Solvents.  Note that at the bottom of the paper it proudly says ‘Printed with Solvent based ink’.  Really classy.

So, with this in mind, does it sound like VOC regulation is really about improving our indoor air.  Stand by, it gets worse.  There is also a class of chemicals called Hazardous Air Pollutants (HAP’s).  This is a class of 188 (or 189 depending on your source) that is regulated by the EPA as known or probable human carcinogens.  Since these are regulated, the manufacturer is required by law to disclose these and they typically do in what is called an MSDS (Material Safety Data Sheet).  it is not something they need to show on the can, so if you don’t check the MSDS sheet, you will have no way of knowing that they are part of the product.  What is scary about this, is that out of the hundreds of thousands of chemicals that exist and out of the almost 2000 new chemicals that are introduced every year… we only have 188 of them.  Pretty scary thought.  So keep in mind that these might be in your coatings in addition to Exempt Solvents and you could still have a Zero VOC paints or coatings.  Now how do you feel about just looking for Low-VOC or Zero VOC?

My point to all of this is to look for paints or coatings that are looking beyond VOC content and are truly concerned with your health and indoor air quality.  Look for paints that Eliminate VOC’s, Exempt VOC’s and all HAP’s.  Where do you find these?  There is a certification called GreenSeal.  Their approval standards address this and you can rest assured that if is passes GreenSeal that these issues are not a problem.  Be cautious of paints or coatings that say they ‘meet’ GreenSeal standards.  If it doesn’t have the Seal on the packaging and an approval number on the GreenSeal website, it is not a GreenSeal approved product.  We currently carry two of the best lines at aka Green.  American pride and Yolo (huge sale on remaining inventory).  There are a number of others and one that we don’t carry but appears to be a great paint as well is Benjamin Moore’s Aura line of paints.

Good luck and happy painting.

Next time, we will discuss what you need to look for to find durable paints?  And why you need to be extra cautious around Children?

~ by jeff frost on February 6, 2009.

3 Responses to “Beyond VOC’s… Please!”

  1. This is an interesting article. I agree that there are ways around the VOC issue. Another way to quickly determine the environmental impact of paints is to look at both VOC levels as currently measured and the amount of carcinogenic materials in the paint. I have looked at the Rainguard International product line of exterior concrete coatings for example and all their products exceed the SCAQMD low VOC standards for the Southern California market and contain a statement on all their MSDS sheets that reads “Contains no substances known to cause cancer by the State of California”. This approach addresses your point about controlling air quality and hazardous materials.

    • George – Sorry for the delay in posting your comment. There are some issues with Rainguard’s solution, one being that cancer is not the only negative health effect of toxic chemicals. So, while it is a step in the right direction, that statement does not get to the goal line.

      What does Rainguard’s Plugger 10 have in it that merits the statement on the MSDS: “INHALATION HEALTH RISKS AND SYMPTOMS OF EXPOSURE:
      Inhalation exposure may cause dizziness, headaches and even unconsciousness.”?

      Also, logos like the “Eco-Friendly” logo on their website, which look a lot like a “seal of approval” but are just marketing logos, are detrimental to consumer awareness.

      What exactly does “100% Green” on EPC’s website mean? The FTC’s Green Guides on environmental marketing claims would suggest that statement is out of bounds.

      Also, products can help earn LEED points but products cannot individually earn LEED points. LEED points in this regard are based upon the cumulative effect of all products used in a project as pertains to a specific criteria.

      Rainguard’s product line seems to be better than many traditional coatings products, but third party certification to stringent, comprehensive standards brings piece of mind without customers needing to become chemists.

      One of the additional issues we educate consumers on with regards to paint is that all VOC measurements are on the base product, before tint is added at the paint store. Zero-VOC tints are readily available but they cost significantly more than tints with significant amounts of VOC’s. Therefore, it is hard to find paint stores that invest in them on their customers’ behalf. Ask beforehand so that your zero-VOC paint is not defeated by the pigments added.

  2. I was curious if you ever thought about suggesting photocatalytic lighting as a solution to VOCs? We purchased a product about seven months ago in Japan by the name WellnessLight Kids which we use in our son’s room. My son suffers from allergies which I know are exasterpated by everyday exposure to indoor air pollution and VOCs. Within days his allergy symptoms we reduced. Seven months later he is a new kid. I was sceptical, however, after researching the technology I found it has been very effective against VOCs and the military has been testing it against chemical weapons. VOCs are deadly. The more people know, the safer our children will be. Thank you for taking the time to blog about this subject.

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