If you walk into a freshly painted room these days and feel like there’s something missing, you might very well be right.
What’s often omitted, thanks to eco-friendly paints, is the smell.
Lack of odor is just one of the benefits of the new lines of reduced-VOC paints on the market, which are now being offered by just about every major paint manufacturer.
VOC, which stands for volatile organic compounds, are what give traditional paints their distinctive aroma. VOCs have become a concern in recent years because of the compounds’ potentially toxic effects, both for people and the earth.
“I have noticed an increase in demand (for alternative paint) over the past two years,” said Jack Delaney, manager of the Sherwin-Williams paint story in Monterey, California. “The community here is very health-conscious and environmentally aware.”
VOCs are one of the factors creating indoor pollution, as gases from paint dissipate into the air, a process that can occur months or even years after the paint is applied. Exterior paints have the same effect, but because they’re used outside, the homeowner isn’t impacted on a day-to-day basis.
When it’s indoors, you can’t get away from it.
“You’re breathing that every day,” said Penny Butler, general manager of the green-certified business Renovations Design & Remodeling in Carmel Valley, California. “It’s all about the indoor air quality.”
According to the How Stuff Works Web site (www.howstuffworks.com), VOCs are unstable, carbon-containing compounds in paint that enter the air and react with other elements. This not only produces ozone, but fumes from the hundreds of other compounds can lead to health issues such as breathing problems, headaches, watery eyes and nausea. Some VOCs also have been linked to organ damage and cancer.
Paint is the second largest source of VOC emissions into the atmosphere after automobiles, responsible for roughly 11 billion pounds every year. Oil-based paints have more VOCs, but latex paints can also contain significant amounts.
“Green” paint products use different formulations to alleviate outgassing, putting fewer VOCs into our indoor environments. These alternative paints will often carry the logo of Green Seal, a nonprofit which sets standards for eco-friendly products. Labels will also identify paints as zero-VOC, low odor or low-VOC, non-toxic, or natural.
One caveat, however: Consumers should be aware that natural paints may not be the same as low-VOC. Natural paints are made the old-fashioned way – from materials like clay, lime, linseed oil and chalk. While they don’t use any solvents, natural paints may contain other odiferous compounds such as citrus oils, which can aggravate respiratory problems in some people.
Paint made with milk is a do-it-yourself solution that’s easy on the lungs, with recipes available on the Internet.
But let’s face it, most people do go to a paint store to buy their paint. And the good news is that low-VOC paints these days are widely available and don’t necessarily cost any more than traditional paints.
Butler said her customers are sometimes concerned that low-VOC paints will add to the cost of their remodeling projects.
However, she said that these days the alternative paints are just as affordable as the old-school varieties.
Customers have been pleased with the look of their projects, too.
“At the end, they do notice how it doesn’t smell like paint,” Butler said. “It’s an added benefit.”
Sherwin-Williams is typical of paint manufacturers these days, with several families of eco-friendly paints including the zero-VOC Harmony line, which Delaney said “covers spectacularly and works really well.”
A concern of early alternative paints is that they wouldn’t provide adequate coverage, or that they would take longer to dry, or be less durable. These problems may have existed years ago, but are no longer the case, Delaney said, as paint formulation technology has improved.
One small problem, however, is that color choices might be a little limited in some lines of low-VOC paints. Because of their formulation, “It’s hard to get bold, bright colors,” Delaney said. However, new products are coming on the market that have alleviated that concern, such as Sherwin-Williams’ Duration line.
Not only are homeowners asking for low-VOC paints, but even more so are businesses. With many businesses mandated by state and federal governments to be eco-friendly, paint is one of the easy things that can be changed.
Health-based businesses are being especially proactive.
Chad Stout, project manager for McLaughlin Painting in Salinas, California, said that the company recently painted Natividad Medical Center’s labor department with low-VOC paint, which was required by the hospital.
The low-VOC paint “has performed well thus far,” he said. “The application is the same.”
If you’re buying eco-friendly paint, you might want to consider purchasing other products that are good to the earth.
Some paint stores, including Sherwin-Williams, offer biodegradable paintbrushes and drop cloths, paint trays made from recycled materials and eco-friendly paint stripper.
Personal interviews with Jack Delaney, Penny Butler and Chad Stout, October 2009