What are VOCs, and What’s the Big Deal?

September 21st, 2010 | Posted by cramcharran in Air Quality | Environment | Green Building | Green Homes | Green Products

If you’ve been in the market for paint lately, you’re surely seen and heard the marketing noise about low- and zero-VOC paints. You know it’s something green, and clearly VOCs are something bad, so you’re intrigued and may even have bought some of this paint by now…. But you may also be wondering: What, exactly, are VOCs?

Well, as it turns out, there is no single definition of a VOC that is agreed upon by regulating agencies worldwide. But the letters stand for Volatile Organic Compounds, which the EPA used to refer to as  reactive organic gasses (ROGs), if that’s any help. Some occur in nature; others are man-made.

In the world of green products, VOC usually refers to a man-made, liquid solvent that gives off toxic fumes. You can often smell the VOCs in paint and other liquids you find in hardware stores–it’s that not-so-nice, often headache-inducing smell you get from wet paint, turpentine, varnish, and products in that vein. But a substance can continue to emit VOCs even after it has dried and you no longer smell anything, often for years at a time.

This is why VOCs are such a big deal when it comes to paint. According to the EPA,  indoor air pollution is one of the top 5 hazards to human heath–and VOCs are a major contributor to it. The EPA recommends the use of low- and zero-VOC paints, and it defines low-VOC as having 250 grams or fewer VOCs per liter. GreenSeal has an even lower limit of 50 grams for low-VOC paints.

Things become tricky, however, when color is added to a base: The VOC rating applies only to the base color, not whatever pigments might be added. So be sure to find out whether your tints are low-VOC, as well.

Then there’s zero-VOC, which is of course the best option. Most zero-VOC paints actually do have very low levels of VOCs, as the EPA requires only that they have less than 5 grams per liter to carry that label. But truly zero-VOC paints do exist–to find them, you simply have to know what you’re looking for on the label.

To start you out in the right direction, Green Depot’s house line of paints and primers, Ivy Coatings, is truly zero-VOC, even when tinted. And it’s available in a huge range of colors, including a set of four subtly different premixed shades of white–for just the right white, which can be more important than many people realize.

Green Depot also carries a number of other low- and zero-VOC coating options, including non-toxic Ana Sova Food Paint (which really is made of mostly food-grade ingredients, including milk proteins), Yolo Colorhouse paints, and a range of not only paints but wood stains, polyurethanes, concrete stains and more from AMF and EcoProCote.

Yellow paint photo credit: Even Roberts/Flickr.com

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