Healthy Paints Part 1: Paint Industry Drives Toward Zero VOCs – Will Certifications Catch Up?

Tom Lent | June 14, 2010

This blog post, originally shared in the Pharos Signal, includes information about parts of Pharos that are no longer available. Please use it for historical reference and for the other useful information it contains.

Low-VOC labels and certifications abound on the paint shelves today. What do they all mean?  Not necessarily what you think.

First, let's look at the certifications.  Green Seal, EcoLogo, CRGI GreenWise and MPI Green Performance all base their certifications on VOC content -- and 50 grams/liter (g/l) is the magic number.  Almost every single one of the certifications sets 50 g/l as the maximum VOC content for flat sheen paints. (Flat sheens are primarily for ceilings and walls, with a matte look and are the least scrubbable of the sheens).

The consensus goes out the window for other sheens, such as semi-gloss, gloss, satin or eggshell (each preferable for different areas/parts of a building, depending on need for moisture resistance, scrubbability, and/or shine).  MPI holds its threshold to 50 g/l for all sheens, while GreenSeal and CRGI allow up to 100 g/l for the non-flat sheens.  EcoLogo has a more complex set of criteria, limiting interior non-flat paints to 100 g/l, 125 g/l for exterior non-flat sheens and 150 g/l for gloss sheens.

Some of the relevant government standards are running ahead of the third party certification programs. Since 2008, the South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD) has mandated a standard maximum VOC content of 50 g/l for flat and non-flat paints/coatings used in buildings in Southern California.  The SCAQMD standard is used by the LEED certification system as the standard for credits in its certification program.

Meanwhile, in many cases, the paint industry is ahead of both the certifications and standards.  All of the 23 semi-gloss paints (non-flat) Pharos evaluated as of June 8, 2010 have VOC content less than 50 g/l -- and hence meet the lowest current standard.  But they don't stop there.  Almost three quarters of those paints (17) have less than half the allowed VOC content (that is less than 25 g/l). More than half (13) are close to or at zero VOC content (with 5 g/l or less).  Clearly the 50 g/l and higher thresholds of the standards and certifications are needlessly high and the discerning specifier can hold out for much better paint specifications.

You can do better than the certifications and standards by using the Pharos scoring filter to find paint products with lower VOC content in the Pharos Building Products Library.  Setting the filter to a minimum VOC score of 6 will only display those products with VOC content of 25 g/l or less.  A minimum VOC score of 7 will limit the display to those paints with true zero VOCs.*  Despite standards and certification programs, there is no need to accept paint with VOC content even close to 50 g/l anymore.


*"True zero VOCs" here refers to the fact that most VOC disclosures by manufacturers only include the VOCs that contribute to smog formation. Other VOCs are exempt even though they may have health effects. To get a VOC score of 7 a product must be known to have no VOC including these exempt VOCs, See Sorting Out The VOCs for more about this issue.