A new coat of paint or stain can make a room feel fresh again, but it often has the opposite effect on the air quality in your home. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, paints, stains, and other architectural coatings produce about 9 percent of the volatile organic compound (VOC) emissions from consumer and commercial products, making them the second-largest source of VOC emissions after automobiles.
VOCs are carbon compounds that evaporate at room temperature and react in sunlight to form ground-level ozone, an integral component of photochemical smog. VOCs can cause respiratory, skin, and eye irritation; headaches; nausea; muscle weakness; and more serious ailments and diseases, according to the EPA. Formaldehyde, a VOC commonly found in paint, is a probable carcinogen. The EPA has found that indoor concentrations of VOCs are regularly up to ten times as high as outdoor concentrations, and can climb up to a thousand times as high as outdoor concentrations when you are applying paint.
While it is important to check VOC content on labels and material safety data sheets, those sources won’t necessarily tell the whole story. When considering the VOC content of any product, keep in mind that EPA and state and local rules are intended to reduce emissions of VOCs that cause smog, not to improve indoor air quality. These rules allow paints labeled “zero-VOC” or “no-VOC” to contain up to five grams of VOCs per liter (g/L) in addition to VOCs that have been exempted from the rules.
Beyond VOCs, many paints and coatings are made with 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.
We recommend you maximize ventilation, in addition to selecting the highest quality, lowest toxicity coating that fits pocketbook and project. When buying furniture or flooring, ask for finishes to be factory applied. If that’s not possible, install porous materials in your home well after finishes have dried.
Green Home Guide Staff