VOC stands for volatile organic compound–any of several chemical additives found in numerous consumer products, from gasoline and glue to correction fluid and colored markers. Even cosmetics, mothballs, air fresheners and household cleaning supplies contain VOCs.
Because they're volatile, these compounds vaporize and emit gasses, even long after they've dried. Paint, for example, emits only half of its VOCs in the first year.
What Are the Risks?
VOCs are linked to a range of health problems, including some very serious diseases. Benzene, for example, is one of several VOCs that's known to cause cancer...not suspected--known, beyond any doubt. Other health effects besides cancer include kidney damage, liver damage, damage to the central nervous system (including the brain), as well as minor complaints like headaches and eye, throat, and nose irritation.
The health effects of VOCs vary from source to source, and from person to person. Professional painters have been found to have a range of serious health problems, especially liver and kidney damage. People with pre-existing conditions, pregnant and nursing women, small children and other sensitive people are at particular risk.
Even an occasional painting project can increase your risk of physical problems. Levels of VOCs inside your house can increase up to 1,000 times after doing something like painting or paint stripping. Paint and paint products, in fact, are the second-largest source of VOCs after cars. The VOCs in paint can seriously affect the indoor air quality of even a well-ventilated home or office, and they're a major cause of "sick building syndrome."
Avoiding VOCs and Considering "Green" Paints
First of all, follow all the manufacturer's recommendations regarding safe paint use. Paint only in well-ventilated areas, for example, and keep paint and paint products away from children and pets. And look for paints that are no- or low-VOCs.
Lots of manufacturers are now claiming to make eco-friendly paint, but some of these claims are dubious and may be just greenwashing. For paint to actually call itself "low-VOC," the EPA requires that it have no more than 250 grams per liter (g/l) of VOCs for flat and latex paint--oil-based paints can have up to 380 g/l. (Some places, like California, have even stricter standards.) To call itself VOC-free, paint can have no more than 5 g/l of VOCs.
Should I Buy Eco-Friendly Paints?
Many of so-called eco-friendly paints are very high-quality, do an excellent job of coverage, and aren't much more expensive than regular, high-VOC paints. Remember, you're probably only buying paint once every few years, so an extra five bucks a gallon isn't much to pay for your health and safety.
On the other hand, even the lowest-VOC paints still have plenty of toxic chemicals in them, like pigments, binders, etc. They just don't volatilize (emit gasses) as much. In any case, follow safety recommendations and use common sense. If you are concerned because you have small children or chemical sensitivities, consider a paint that has the Green Seal label on it. These paints have no cancer-causing agents, reproductive toxins, or heavy metals. And if you're really ambitious, love Martha Stewart, or just want to be super-green, try making your own paint. People have had good luck with milk-based paints that contain eggs, flour, and natural pigments and dyes from plants.
Where to Buy VOC-Free Paints
Fortunately, awareness of VOCs and paint's health risks has grown so much recently that high-quality brands of low- and no-VOC paints are available at retailers everywhere, and at reasonable prices. Some final advice: All paints, even greener paints, still need to be disposed of properly. Take old cans of paint–along with your old compact fluorescent lights, old mercury-containing thermostats, and other hazardous materials–to your local processing center for disposal. If you're not sure where your local center is, check the info on Earth911.com.