Green construction usually embraces using paints with low levels of volatile organic compounds or VOCs. However, finding a low VOC paint can be a hassle. That's because VOCs can be added at the factory and at your paint store when specifying you specify a color.
Why Low VOC Paints?
We normally choose low VOC paints over traditional paints to improve the air quality of our indoor living environment. Typical paints contain VOCs like benzene, formaldehyde, and toluene. These compounds are placed in paint to resist mold and mildew, make it easier to clean, and make it last longer. All of these compounds are classified as "hazardous" by the US Environmental Protection Agency. The compounds have a tendency to come out of the paint and enter the air where they can hurt our indoor living environment. Some scientific studies point to poor air circulation and high VOCs as the cause of sick building syndrome. People suffering from sick building syndrome experience eye,nose and throat irritation, nausea, headaches, and even cancer.
Oil-based paints and primers have high amounts of VOCs and smell pretty bad. That's why the manufacturers recommend using them with plenty of ventilation. As many of us will attest to, water-based or latex paints have lower concentrations. The finish of the paints can also determine the amount of VOCs in it. Flat or matte finishes have the lowest amount. As you add sheen, the amount of VOCs increases. White paints have lower amounts of VOCs while brightly colored paint has higher amounts.
What's really in a can of Paint
VOCs are added to paint at the factory and at your paint store when you request a specific color. VOC levels of paint can be initially determined by reading the paint can and then determining what's added by the color pigment at the paint store. The color pigment increases the VOC level by as much as as 150 g/l, depending on what color you choose. Darker, brighter and high gloss paints have more VOCs in them. The manufacturers of Freshaire Choice and Mythic paint claim that their paints have no VOCs and that the color pigments used in their finishes contain no VOCs.
Despite their names and claims, the best way of making sure you get the best product for your needs is to read the label on the paint can first. The federal government requires that the VOC content in paint be no greater than 250 grams per liter (g/l) for flat finishes and 380 g/l for other finishes (low-luster, semigloss, etc.). California’s South Coast Air Quality Management District has set a far more stringent level of 50 g/l for all finishes. Some of the paint manufacturers have opted to comply with more stringent limits. These include Benjamin Moore Aura, True Value Easy Care, and Glidden Evermore. However, we could not find any information about the amount of VOCs in their colorants, so please comment below if you have information on this.
How about performance?
The trade offs between finding a good low VOC, Zero VOC or No VOC paint may entail their performance. Consumer Reports gave the low VOC paints mixed marks. We recently used Benjamin Moore Aura paint on some kitchen cabinets and were happy with the look and how easy it was to use.