Healthy Paints Part 2: Beyond VOC Content – Getting the Toxics Out

Tom Lent | June 24, 2010 | Newsletter

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 Please use it for historical reference and for the other useful information it contains.

Last week we described the major reductions in VOC content we are seeing in paints (Paint Industry Drives Toward Zero VOCs -- Will Certifications Catch Up?). But does a low-VOC content number mean these paints are actually safe from the perspective of environmental health? Not necessarily.

As we described in an earlier blog (Sorting Out The VOCs), the total VOC (TVOC) criteria originally was established by the EPA to control product emissions of smog forming compounds into the environment, not to control direct indoor air health impacts.  With the focus on smog formation, TVOC is a very incomplete measure of the potential health impact of chemicals of concern in a product.  By official EPA definition, TVOC exempts some VOCs from measurement because they don't contribute to smog formation even though they otherwise may be quite toxic.  There is no "safe" level of VOCs, except where products contain absolutely no VOCs including the exempt compounds.  Very few paint manufacturers indicate whether the VOC content levels of their products include the non-smog forming, exempt compounds. Setting the Pharos VOC filter at 7 screens out all but those few that have stated clearly that their product contains no VOCs, including exempted VOCs.

Looking only at a product's VOC content does not tell the whole story of the product's potential harm from VOCs.  As paints cure, they can sometimes create and emit formaldehyde or other VOCs during the curing process.  Both the GreenGuard & Scientific Certification Systems (SCS) programs now certify paints, by looking at the potential for long-term VOC emissions. The MPI Extreme Green program also requires emissions testing before certifying the products. The problem is that the standard upon which these programs are based (California 01350) is designed to identify and evaluate only long-term emissions, not the short-term blast of emissions that comes in the first few hours and days after the paint is applied to the wall.

Until good short-term testing protocols are developed for paints (and other wet-applied products), another measure of potential VOC harm for the indoor environment is to look at the VOC content.  Pharos gives the highest VOC scores to products that both reduce VOC content to zero (including exempted compounds) and meet the long-term VOC tests embodied in the California 01350 standard.  With the new California 01350 higher residential standard in effect, specifiers should require that paint products meet this more rigorous level that we wrote about last month (A New Voc Standard & New Tools From Pharos To Help You Get The VOCs Out).

Finally, VOCs (both content and emissions) are not the only potentially unhealthy chemicals associated with paint.  Although lead has long been removed from paint, plenty of other non-volatile, but still toxic chemicals remain in paints.  Most of the certification programs have some limits on other toxic content of the paints.  The Green Seal chemical screen is by far the most extensive.  Green Seal includes a list of 25 chemicals that cannot be in Green Seal-certified paint, but also references authoritative lists of carcinogens, mutagens, reproductive toxins, hazardous air pollutants or ozone-depleting compounds similar to the Pharos Chemical and Material Library lists that we use to create the User Toxicity scores.  GreenSeal publishes a list of products that meet the new, rigorous Green Seal Standard.  Very few paints are certified under the new Green Seal program, but we hope to see more upcoming.

Want healthy paints? You can find them in Pharos. Start with the wide selection of paints now available with VOC content levels at 25 g/l or below (those that score 6 or higher in VOC). Better yet, go for paint containing zero VOCs and ask manufacturers if that zero includes exempt compounds (there are at least 3 in Pharos that meet that high standard).  And finally, for the best paints available, don't stop at VOC content.  Look for those that avoid all toxic content by seeking Green Seal certification or a high Pharos User Toxicity score.*

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* Note that the Green Seal paint certification program was updated in 2008 and certifications under the previous version are no longer valid. Several paint companies that certified to the previous version, however, have not recertified to the new updated version, yet still claim to "meet Green Seal" or even to be "Green Seal certified." Always confirm that a paint is still certified before accepting a manufacturer Green Seal claim.