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Painting is one of the most cost-effective and low-time consuming activities you can perform that will bring a large change with just a small investment. It is a remodeling activity that is worth going for. However, until recently much of the paint products on the market contained volatile organic compounds. These are harmful substances that have a high vapor pressure at room temperature. It causes the particles in the paint to evaporate quickly. You can know if the color has volatile organic compounds if it exhibits a smell or odor.

There have also been other harmful substances used in paint that were not regulated up until the 1970s. For example, pigments made with the heavy metal lead were commonly found in paint cans before 1980. The lead would help the paint dry quickly and was a marketing phenomenon because it was targeting a pain-point most customers had. However, it was soon banned (1978) from use because it was found to be especially toxic to small children.

Now the legal limit of lead in paint is 1 and a half percent of the weight of the material. Are you concerned that the walls on your home may be painted with paint containing excessive levels of lead? You can buy test kits available online and at most hardware stores that will examine the lead content in the paint. If you find that the paint indeed contains higher than legal levels of lead, you should contact the pollution control center in your area for instructions on how to eliminate it., recoating the walls with an extra layer of paint will not solve the problem.

Although paint manufacturers took out lead as a drying material from their products several years ago, it did not stop them from using petroleum-based solvents to market a quick-dry mechanism. VOCs help the paint flow smoothly and dry quicker. Types of gases that are emitted from these solvents include acetone, methylene chloride, xylene, ethylene, and toluene. These chemical gases are listed as indoor pollutants and may take years to complete “off-gassing”. Young children, pregnant women, and people with allergies and respiratory illnesses are especially susceptible to strong odors emitted by these gases. The symptoms they may experience include dizziness, eye irritation, headaches, fatigue, and nausea. Long-term effects of VOC poisoning include liver, kidney, and central nervous system damage.

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Formaldehyde: The Common VOC

Formaldehyde is a colorless gas with a strong odor that is found in many building materials and household products including paint. Its favorite form is gas that is why the process of it emitting from drying paint is called off-gassing. Although it has not been confirmed in humans, testing has shown that formaldehyde causes cancer in laboratory animals. Formaldehyde can be found in liquid sources too. That is why it is important never to dump paint down the drain because it can find its way into the water supply.

How do I reduce the usage of VOCs and help the environment at the same time?

The best step you can take to reduce the usage of VOCs and help the environment at the same time is to select a paint that has water-based mediums instead of petroleum-based solvents. Water-based medium paints usually have little or zero formaldehyde.

Manufacturers must meet specific standards set out by the Environmental Protection Agency. The current limit is 200 grams of volatile organic compounds per liter of paint or stain and 300 grams of VOCs per liter of varnish. Those are the maximum limits but most paints that have the certification will usually only contain about 50 grams of VOCs per liter and will also carry the Green Seal (GS11) symbol.

My home was painted before 1978, what do I do?

Lead is the primary concern with homes that were painted before 1978, the year in which it became illegal for manufacturers to use lead as a material in the paint. Lead is a naturally occurring material that is bluish-grey in color, soft, and resistant to corrosion. If your home was painted before 1978 and you have re-painted it without removing the initial coat, then you may be at risk. You need to contact a lead abatement specialist to have the lead coat removed. But before you do that, it is a good idea to use a lead testing kit available online or at a home hardware store to verify that you indeed have lead-containing paint on your walls. Lead abatement specialists can use a variety of techniques to remove the lead from your walls such as:

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  • Encapsulating the lead material
  • Dry sanding, cutting, buffing, grinding, or scraping surfaces.
  • Application of oxy-acetylene, or plasma arc to clean a lead-coated surface
  • Hot cutting

Lead-containing paint is still used in industrial applications. For example, yellow lane dividers on roads and highways are made from lead-containing paint. The reason why the federal and state governments still use lead for yellow lane dividers is that it is more durable, makes the color more visible at night, and dries quickly.

Lead is dangerous because it can affect numerous systems of the body and prevent the body’s ability to produce blood. Anemia, reproductive incapability, high blood pressure, nerve damage, lower brain function, and kidney damage are all linked to lead absorption. If you are concerned the contaminant lead has made its way into your body, you can ask your doctor to refer you to a blood test where they will measure the lead concentration in your blood. You may also be at risk if you work in an industrial setting and lead is used heavily in your place of employment.

Finding the Best Low VOC Paint

Conventional paints are a lot more like each other than paints that offer environmental benefits. Most paints are nearly identical because the manufacturers have competed on price and performance. Whereas health and safety of the general public are concerned, the competition increases among manufacturers and more options are available.

The types of materials used in these new environmentally friendly paints include chalk, clay, milk casein, talcum, natural latex, mineral dyes, beeswax, plant oils, and resins. Some folks may still be allergic to these materials, but they are generally known to be a lot healthier for people than unnatural compounds. Paints that are water based do not emit as strong as an odor and may contain natural oils that make the smell a pleasant one.

Some recommended manufacturers that carry environmentally friendly paints include:

  • American Formulating and Manufacturing.

This company has a line of paint products sold under the Safe Coat pipeline. All their products under this sub-brand are made to minimize outgassing and eliminate toxicity.

  • Sherwin Williams

Sherwin Williams is a fortune 500 company and they have their own line of low toxic/low VOC paints. They are sold under the product lines such as ProMar and EcoSelect.

  • Aglaia

Aglaia is a natural paints company that is sold to consumers in the United Kingdom. They have a whole range of products from waxes and oils to plasters to primers/sealants.

  • Allied Photochemical

Allied PhotoChemical aims to serve the industrial sectors with water based and solvent based coatings. They carry a variety of VOC free products.

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Other companies include:

  • Best Paint
  • American Pride
  • Anna Sova
  • Olympic
  • Yolo Colorhouse
  • Weather-Bos
  • Benjamin Moore
  • Auro
  • Bioshield
  • MAB Paints
  • Cloverdale
  • Devoe
  • Kelly Moore
  • ICI
  • Livos
  • Green Planet
  • Miller Paint
  • Vista Paint
  • Real Milk Paint
  • Silacote
  • Frazee

Many of these brands are household names, and that is because the major manufacturers now offer environmental-conscious products. The ones you don’t recognize, well you should allocate some time to research them to find out if they fit your needs. Most large building supply stores will stock at least some paints with low VOC content, and dedicated paint stores will usually have a variety to choose from.

Other Products to Keep in Mind

EcoSelect Zero VOC Interior Latex

This product is offered by Sherwin Williams. It is part of their EcoSelect Zero VOC Interior Latex lineup. It has good resistance and contains agents that inhibit the growth of mold and mildew on the paint surface film. There is a wide range of colors to select from the color spectrum, so you’ll be sure to find a match for you. It also has the UL 2818 Standard Certification with the Greenguard symbol that signifies its low pollutant emissions.

Benjamin Moore Natura Interior Paint – Flat

This is a product from Benjamin Moore that is marketed as asthma and allergy friendly. It is also Zero VOC and Zero Emissions. 100 % acrylic and durable with the washable film. It also has the Gennex engineered colored technology, and an unlimited color selection is available. It is resistant to spattering. Available in flat, eggshell, semi-gloss, and pearl configurations.

Cloverdale Ecologic

This Ecologic paint is made by Cloverdale Paint. It is 100% acrylic latex water-based medium that has ceramic microsphere technology to provide resistance to stains, burnish, and abrasion. It has low VOCs and contains a fungicide to prevent mildew and mold from forming on the paint surface. Its available in Eggshell, Pearl, Flat, low-gloss, semi-gloss, and series high gloss.

Furthermore, paint is not the only surface treatment that is applied with a sprayer, roller, or brush because other products exist such as wallboard primers, wood and metal primers, wood stains and sealers, paint strippers, masonry and grout sealers, and varnish and lacquer replacements.

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More tips to consider:

  • When choosing a paint, for select it for its application and second for its other properties
  • Read the health and safety risks label on each paint product because they usually list the hazards associated with using it.
  • Only use what you need. A general rule of thumb is that a gallon of paint is good for covering 400 square meters. Take out your measuring tape if you must.
  • Check the VOC levels and look for paints that have 50 or fewer grams per liter
  • Compare the pigment to medium ratio because higher pigment concentration will provide better coverage
  • Keep brushes and rollers fresh by wrapping them in airtight plastic instead of washing them after every use. This should not be done with lacquer or varnish.
  • Use turpentine to clean the paint oil off the brushes
  • Do not throw away paint in your regular garbage bin. Instead, drop it off at a hazardous waste drop-off site. Here others may be able to use the leftover paint which will help others save some money.


Nearly 40,000 years ago people used carve paintings that were drawn with natural ochre and charcoal to decorate their walls. Today, paint is the primary medium to finish the interior of the walls in our home. The main risk associated with paint is the binding agents that hold the pigments together contain volatile organic compounds. These VOCs are harmful to small children and adults alike. The most common volatile organic compound that is an indoor pollutant is formaldehyde which is a known carcinogen (cancer-causing chemical). Formaldehyde may not only be present in your paint but also kitchen cabinets, insulation, and furniture.

The formaldehyde gases are slowly released into the air you breathe over the years you inhabit your home. At first, it was believed that lead paint is harmful because it causes small children to eat the broken flakes but what the real danger is the microscopic dust that everyone unknowingly breathes. As stated earlier, removing lead-based paint is not simply a matter of applying a zero VOC paint as a recoat, but you will need to contact a lead abatement specialist to have it removed. These may use techniques such as sanding or scraping to safely remove the paint without any damage to the drywall or wood.