by Janelle Sorensen, Content Director at Elemental Green and Chief Strategist at gro gud

Look up the word “zero” in a dictionary and you’ll find definitions like “nothing at all” and “a state of total absence.” So, it’s no wonder that when most people see “zero-VOC” on a paint label, they assume it means there are no VOCs. Zilch. Zip. None. In actuality, that’s not what it means at all – at least not most of the time. And paint manufacturers aren’t lying per se, they’re just not telling the whole truth about the issue (or at least not being very transparent about it). Here are the facts about VOCs and why you can’t always trust a zero-VOC paint label.

What Are VOCs?

VOCs are volatile organic compounds, which are chemicals emitted as gasses from thousands of different types of products (as well as biogenic sources like pine, citrus, and freshly cut grass). Household cleaners, cosmetics, new furnishings, varnishes, and paints – just to name a few – all release VOCs (also called off-gassing). While not all VOCs are bad, some have short and/or long-term health impacts. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), health effects can include:

  • eye, nose, and throat irritation
  • headaches, loss of coordination, and nausea
  • damage to liver, kidney, and central nervous system
  • cancer in animals and some are suspected or known to cause cancer in humans.

The EPA has also found that some of the most common VOCs are typically 2 to 5 times (and sometimes 10 times) higher inside homes than outside, regardless of whether they’re located in a quaint countryside or a highly industrial urban neighborhood.

What VOCs Are In Paint?

The specific VOCs found in paints vary from manufacturer to manufacturer and you won’t always be able to find exactly what they are. Paint companies aren’t required to reveal all the ingredients in their products and even the Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) doesn’t always reveal every chemical used. There are limits on VOC levels, but as you’ll soon learn, even those aren’t as straightforward as they seem.

Federal VOC limits are currently set at 250 grams per liter (g/l) for flat paints and 380 g/l for others. But, there’s a patchwork of different standards across the U.S. For example, California’s standards are the most stringent: 150 g/l for nonflat finishes and 100 g/l for flat. Since manufacturers don’t want to make different paints based on state boundaries, today, a typical can of flat interior latex paint abides by the California regulations and contains about 150 grams per liter of VOCs. Low-VOC is usually 50 g/l or less and no-VOC is usually 5 g/l or less.

Here’s the first caveat: the amount of VOCs listed on a can of paint is the amount in the base coating.  The colorant added to the paint has VOCs, as well (the darker the color, the higher the levels). So, you might think you’re buying a no-VOC paint with less than 5 g/l of VOCs, but how much more did you just add to it after choosing a color? The employee mixing it up for you almost certainly won’t know. And this is just the beginning of the VOC quandary.

On to a much bigger caveat…

What Does a Zero-VOC Paint Label Really Mean?

When a paint label says “low-VOC” or “zero VOC” it only applies to some VOCs – the ones that contribute to smog and global warming. Here’s how Joel Hirshberg of Green Building Supply describes it:

Unfortunately, the definition of VOCs (developed by the EPA) as precursors of photochemical smog includes exemptions for compounds that are determined to be non-reactive or of low-reactivity in the smog formation process. In other words, some VOCs have been de-classified as VOCs because they don’t react with certain chemicals that create smog.

This has caused a great deal of confusion because chemicals that are de-regulated for purposes of controlling outdoor air pollution may still have a serious effect on indoor air quality.

As a case in point, neither acetone nor ammonia are considered a VOC by the EPA because they do not react with sunlight or other pollutants and promote smog. However, everyone knows from experience that their emissions indoors are not good to breathe. Even the labels on the outside of the cans say inhalation can cause serious health problems.

Sadly, that means that those of us who have previously forked over the extra money for zero-VOC paints because we thought they were safer weren’t getting what we thought we were paying for.

And here’s one more caveat: Testing shows that VOC content (what’s in the paint) doesn’t exactly correlate to VOC emissions (what ends up in your air). Yes – it’s very confusing. The “Paint Volatile Organic Compound Emissions and Volatile Organic Compound Content Comparison Study” conducted by the Underwriter’s Laboratory found that oftentimes paints with less VOC content had more VOC emissions and vice versa. According to the study, “the results demonstrate that paint VOC content should not be used as a proxy for paint VOC emissions into indoor air, as there is no correlation between the two measures. These results demonstrate that low VOC content is not necessarily indicative of acceptable VOC emissions for specific compounds with known health impacts. Thus, building designers, owners and operators, or occupants may be provided a false sense of security regarding the quality of the indoor air.”

What Paint Claims Should You Look For to Protect Your Health?

In the absence of sensible, transparent federal regulations and due to the increase in demand for safer products, several third-party organizations have established testing and certification programs to help consumers buy paint with confidence. Many still have allowable VOC levels, but they go a step further and regulate the most toxic VOCs and other toxic compounds. All of them have helpful, searchable databases to make it easy to find products that have earned their certifications.

  • GREENGUARD Certification offers strict certification criteria, considers safety factors to account for sensitive individuals (such as children and the elderly), and helps to identify products with low chemical emissions. Products certified to this standard may be eligible to earn valuable credits in the CHPS Best Practices Manual for K-12 schools, the US Green Building Council’s LEED® Green Building Rating Systems, the Green Guide for Healthcare, the NAHB Green Building Guidelines, Green Globes, Regreen and many other building codes, standards and specifications.
  • The GS-11 paint standard developed by the nonprofit organization Green Seal sets comprehensive environmental requirements for low-VOC, low-toxic paints. To be certified by Green Seal, flat paints cannot contain more than 50 g/L of VOCs, and non-flat paints cannot contain more than 100 g/L of VOCs. Low- and no-VOC paints may also contain other compounds that affect air quality. Beyond indoor air pollutants, many paints are made with other toxic substances and chemicals that come from nonrenewable resources or are energy-intensive or polluting to produce, so even no-VOC paints and stains can affect the environment. Green Seal’s paint certification standards prohibit numerous non-VOC compounds, including heavy metals, carcinogens, and ozone-depleting compounds.
  • Health Product Declarations (HPDs) provide a full disclosure of the potential chemicals of concern in products by comparing product ingredients to a wide variety of “hazard” lists published by government authorities and scientific associations.
  • SCS Indoor Advantage and Indoor Advantage Gold certify to the most transparent Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) standard for furniture and building materials. It qualifies for many building schemes, including LEED v4, BREEAM, WELL Building, and the Living Building Challenge (perhaps the strictest green and healthy building program in the world).
  • The International Living Future Institute’s Declare label is a ‘nutrition-label’ for products, providing a clear and informative method to disclose ingredients. This label also qualifies products for the Living Building Challenge.

Want to take more steps to protect your indoor air quality? Click through to learn more!