Wednesday, March 11, 2009

We do have a choice: VOC in paint

Our white wall to wall bookcases, blackened from over a decade of “dog” rubbing against the corners, kids whose little shoes marred the window seat, and woodstove particles that had settled into the cracks and crevices, were looking dingy. They’d become a shade of off-white no paint store would dare market, and were in need of some attention.

A good scrubbing helped. But there’s nothing like a new coat of paint to brighten things up, especially after a long winter. With my hired hand in tow (whose little shoes are now size 11) we trudged into Dakor Center and plunked down a can of old paint.

Filler up with the same, I requested. But no such luck. Apparently Deerfield Academy just cleaned Dakor out of the Benjamin Moore Regal I’d used before. But, suggested Richard from behind the counter, I might try the Benjamin Moore Eco-spec™, the virtually no (or very low) VOC paint they use over at the Franklin Medical Center.

VOC means volatile organic compounds, a family of chemicals that paint companies have been trying to phase out or reduce for years – with a little push from state and federal environmental regulations.

The term VOC encompasses a broad category of chemicals with at least two things in common: they are easily volatilized and many are not soluble in water. VOCs are everywhere, from the chlorinated cleaning fluids of olden days which now contaminate drinking water around the country to the ingredients of the Purell Hand Sanitizer that kills 99.99% germs. They are also released from home furnishings, household cleaning products, air fresheners and cigarette smoke. VOCs are produced when coal and oil are burned, when chlorine combines with organic material in water resulting in chloroform, and when cows fart. Recall the flap about cow farts and global warming? That was methane, a VOC. You know that “fresh-cut” grass smell? That’s the VOCs released when the blades are damaged, though they pale in comparison to all the VOCs released by the very act of mowing the lawn (unless of course, you’re using a push mower, then it’s just your own gas that counts.)

Outdoors, VOCs contribute to the formation ground-level ozone or smog, when they combine with other air pollutants like the nitrogen oxides released by burning fossil fuel. The EPA estimates that the nearly 600 million gallons of latex paint (which contains far less VOC than some other paints) sold each year in the US, accounts for nearly 120 million pounds of VOCs released to the atmosphere. Indoors, VOCs can occur at concentrations as much as five-times higher than outdoors, and as much as 1000-times higher after stripping paint.

Some of the worst VOCs are really nasty, causing a range of effects from liver and neurological damage to cancer - though some of the worst offenders are no longer used in consumer products or are present only in very small concentrations. But that doesn’t mean that indoor or home exposure to VOC is harmless. Particularly for those who are sensitive to certain chemicals, who have asthma, or are very old or very young.

Knowing all of this, and as low toxic as I try to be, I wasn’t sure I wanted to pony up more cash for the low VOC paint, the Benjamin Moore Regal was pricy enough. Sensing my hesitation, I was quickly informed that the two paints cost the same.
I could have kicked myself right then and there. How long had this stuff been around, I asked? Since 1999.

Ah, but was it really any better in terms of indoor air pollution than regular latex? Hadn’t latex gotten much safer over the years anyway? The answer to that question took some digging.

“Ingredients that are in conventional latex paints that are not in our Zero VOC paints would be, ammonia and coalescing agents, biocides that are formaldehyde releasers such as Nuosept 95, propylene or ethylene glycol, mineral spirits such as Isopar L, and pigments that contain any free crystalline silica,” emailed Mark Lamborn from Benjamin Moore, when I’d asked about the difference between semi-gloss latex and Eco-Spec.

What did all that mean? Aside from the biocides, which are highly toxic and release formaldehyde, but tend to be used in relatively small amounts – and no-VOC paint still has biocides - the other major difference is the VOC Isopar L, (other paint companies may use something called Texanol.) As listed, the VOC for Regal latex paints ranges from 50-149 grams per liter of paint. Roughly, that’s a bit less than a cup for the lower end, to two cups of VOC for the higher end, per gallon. When painted on gypsum board or drywall, according to an EPA study, those VOCs will volatilize slowly over a period of 3 years.

Mark also explained that the “recently reformulated Waterborne version of Eco Spec (WB) are formulated with raw materials that do not volatize during the drying/curing process. Any trace amounts of VOC [Eco-Spec still has 0.96 gram per liter of VOC] stay within the paint film.” Which, I suppose is why it can be sold as no VOC.
So, no-VOC paint, verses a few cups volatilizing over a few years? Although we’ve got plenty of other indoor pollutants circulating around our home (particularly after a good burrito dinner) why add more in a home where the asthma inhaler often makes the rounds. I went with the low-VOC paint and so far, have been pleased with the results.

A few considerations if you’re in the market for paint:
•There are now many different brands of low or no VOC paint – some rated better in terms of coverage and durability than others, so shop around.

•Watch out for tints. Tints tend to have high VOC so if you’re looking for little or no VOC ask about the type of tints. Some companies now produce Zero VOC tints.

•I focused on latex paint, which uses very little VOC containing solvent, it’s noteworthy that paints for tougher situations (the alkyd paints) can contain upwards of 400grams/L of VOC, now we’re talking VOC. That’s over four cups and, it’s worth noting much of that is released from a painted wall within the first ten hours after application.


Sustaino - said...


I've been following your blog for quite some time and love the wealth of knowledge you offer. As a researcher and dark green consumer, I recently finished the book, "The Body Toxic", which hits on some of the key messages and toxins that you highlight.

Great stuff.


Emily Monosson said...

Thanks Sustaino. I just wrote a review of Body Toxic for American Scientist. Once they publish it, I'll post it on this site.

I'm reading Hot, Flat and Crowded now, after looking at your site (really like the bag counter - plastics is my next project should it get off the ground) wondering if you've read that and what you think of it?

And, please don't take this the wrong way (I just can't help myself on this one, it's a pet peeve, and it's hard to keep the teacher in check sometimes) check out:http://theneighborhood

Natalie said...

I was waiting for the paragraph that said, "and then we painted our bookshelves and were amazed and how much less smelly the low VOC paint was!"

I've found the low VOC paints to be amazingly better smelling than the traditional formulations.

Emily Monosson said...

Here you go,
"...and after he'd painted the bookshelves I was amazed at not just how less smelly the paint was, but there was virtually no smell!"

BUT, just because you can't smell something doesn't mean it's not there. Propane gas for example, doesn't smell, which is why they put mercaptans (the stuff you DO smell) in it.

Though in this case, it's likely no smell means no VOC.

Anonymous said...

Why not use old fashioned milk paint? It works great!

Emily Monosson said...

Nothing is wrong with milk paint,

It does rank up there in cost though (at least what I found was over $40 a gallon.)

My only experience with it was painting some furniture a few years back.

There's definitely something to be said for a more natural paint, considering with latex, we're basically coating our walls with a plastic skin.

I have no idea about durability, washability and coverage when it comes to milk paints.

Hedy said...

Emily, do you have any data on using non-VOC paint to paint OVER a conventional paint? We are about to do some renovations, and I want to get the most interior air quality bang for my buck. If I'm going to spring for non-VOC paint but then have a worry with the conventional paint continuing to gas off (I forget the correct term), then I may focus on flooring instead. Many thanks! Love your 'blog. -Hedy

Emily Monosson said...

Hi Hedy,

Good question, unfortunately I don't have a good answer! My guess is (from the EPA report - see link below) that if the old VOC paint had been there a while - years, most of the VOC may be gone by now anyway.

Here's a link to the report, it wasn't done to assess paint, more to evaluate methods of assessing paint - but seems to have some useful information and you may be able to dig deeper by looking at their references. If there is a citation you can't get to (because it's not an open source kind of journal - let me know and I may be able to track it down.)

Good luck with the renovations!


Nancy Harris said...

Exposure to ozone can cause a significant decrease in lung function at lower concentrations than currently permitted under the National Ambient Air Quality Standard.

Emily Monosson said...

Thanks Nancy for highlighting the issue of chemical mixtures (if that's what you meant to do!)

Exposure to other air pollutants may interact with our ability to handle any particular "load" of toxicants - including, sometimes, those concentrations considered "safe" IF these chemicals act in concert in some way.

Though it is not ideal, currently chemicals are evaluated as single entities - as if we were exposed to only one chemical at a time. It is a big problem when assessing combined exposures to chemicals.