That Ain’t Green Paint: What’s a VOC?

Have you gone paint shopping recently? You’ve probably seen paint labeled “Low-VOC.” Sort of makes you wonder, then, what is a VOC, and if they’re dangerous, why are they allowed in paint at all?drips

Volatile Organic Compounds are chemicals that easily evaporate at room temperature (volatile) and are carbon-based. (Organic, in this case, refers to the type of chemistry, not the farmer’s ethic.) VOCs are a major cause of ground-level pollution like ozone, which causes and exacerbates asthma. They’re also unhealthy to be around – headache-inducing and linked with risk of cancer and other serious diseases.

Paint, adhesives, and some plastics give off VOCs in your home. So when you’re buying paint, it’s a good idea to look for paint with low VOC content, or VOC-free.

And, thanks to government testing and enforcement, you can actually trust these labels. In fact, the gunslingers at the FTC recently caught two paint companies red-handed, misleading consumers about VOC levels. Sherwin-Williams and PPG were advertising paints as “zero-VOC,” when most of them were nothing of the sort, once you actually add the color to the paint. (It’s unclear why anyone would use paint without tint… but sometimes marketers can be creative, we suppose.)

Now, if you’re like most people, you don’t actually spend all your time in your own home: you end up in plenty of other painted places throughout daily life. Wouldn’t it be nice if you didn’t run the risk of high-VOCs everywhere else? Let’s hope the industry and regulators step up — and maybe we can nudge them towards requiring healthier paint for all.

photo credit: Yaniv Golan and Dave Pinter, via Flickr

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