I'm moving into an apartment that has been painted with a VOC paint. What can I do (including repainting) to reduce my exposure?

Asked by Dean
Johnson City, TN

They may not allow me to repaint.


The short answer is the obvious:

  • open windows,
  • turn on fans,
  • turn up the heat.

All of these will help accelerate the offgassing and shorten the time of discomfort.  However, depending upon the product used and the environmental conditions, some offgassing may continue for months or even years with no noticeable odor.

Sealing the paint

Another alternative is to stop the fumes from being emitted by sealing the paint.

AFM Safecoat has manufactured several paints and sealers that actually encapsulate the odors due to their tight molecular structure.

  • They recommend that you first use their AFM Transitional Primer followed by any one of their zero-VOC paints.
  • This is usually adequate to significantly reduce emissions when applied according to directions over the problem paint, but in some cases it may not be enough and additional coats may be required.

They also make clear topical sealers that will work as well but they have a slight gloss to them. Other sealers for offgassing in OSB, chipboard, and carpeting are also available.

VOCs: The Rest of the Story

Certain products that emit VOCs are considered volatile because they have a high vapor pressure and evaporate at room temperature, and they’re considered organic because they’re carbon based.

Unfortunately, the definitions 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 VOCs 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.
  • Acetone and ammonia are both volatile and are both organic compounds. They are typically used as solvents in paints.
  • However, if you read the MSDS sheet for the paint you will not find them listed.

This is just one example of why MSDS sheets don’t tell the whole story and why consumers remain confused about which products are safe.

Labels don't tell the whole story

Caveat emptor! A product labeled low or no VOC is not necessarily safe or good for your health--it simply means it does not promote pollution in the outdoor environment.

  • When a manufacturer’s label reads low or no VOC, we assume the product to be “green” and that green is healthy.
  • However, lack of a VOC does not mean there are no toxic chemicals.

There is nothing illegal about such a label, nor is there anything illegal about excluding from the MSDS ingredients that are trade secrets. It just does not tell the whole story. It presents a false picture, and behind this guise there can be--and often is--much danger. The World Health Organization report of 1984, as well as others, have confirmed that a large percentage of people become ill just being inside a building.

If indoor air quality is to be improved, the EPA must transparently identify, test and label all toxic chemicals so consumers know what they are buying along with any hidden or secret ingredients.

Further information about VOCs and formaldehyde may be found on our website.


For more information:

Read "How do you remove or encapsulate non-green wall and floor finishes?" a Q&A answered by Steve Rush.

Tagged In: home air quality

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