VOCs health hazards
Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are solids and liquids that convert easily to gas or vapor at room temperature. VOCs are contained in many paint products and have been linked to a variety of health problems—watery eyes, headaches, asthma, respiratory diseases and cancer.
Common paint VOCs
Common VOCs in paint include ethylene glycol (the same chemical compound found in antifreeze), formaldehyde, benzene, and a variety of other flammable or toxic chemicals. The paint’s materials safety data sheet (MSDS) lists the hazardous materials the product contains. Laminated MSDS sheets are usually displayed in paint stores, or you can download them from a paint manufacturer’s website.
Current EPA regulations limit VOCs to 250 grams/liter in latex paint, and 380 grams/liter in oil-based paint. Low-VOC paints, now available from most major manufacturers, clock in at less than 50 grams/liter in flat paints, and 150 grams/liter in gloss paints. Some go even lower, hitting 25- or even 10-gram/liter benchmarks.
A paint that has 5 grams or less/liter can claim “zero-VOC” status.
Painters shy away from low-VOC paint, thinking it’s more expensive than the stuff that’s hazardous to their health. In fact, low-VOC and zero-VOC paint are comparable in price to any paint that’s comparable in coverage.
Price is determined by how much bang you get from a gallon. Benjamin Moore’s zero-VOC Aura paint sells for almost $60 per gallon, not because it’s zero VOC, but because it is self-priming and requires only two coats to cover a room. Benjamin Moore’s low-VOC line, Ben, costs about $35 per gallon, comparable to other VOC-laden premium paints.
Tints and VOCs
Even if you buy low-VOC paint, you can unwittingly raise toxic levels by adding tints tainted with VOCs. Low-VOC tints are available, so ask for them when lightening or darkening paint.