The good news is that there are now low-VOC products available for a surprising number of building and remodeling uses. The bad news is, they are still few and far between, even if they're gaining in number and variety every year.
For example, sealers and coatings for indoor/outdoor uses -- wood, stone and even carpet -- can be found in a variety of low-VOC, nontoxic formulations. This is a perfect solution if you already have, or are using, natural materials, since you're not adding toxins. But another important purpose of sealants is to prevent off-gassing, or chemical evaporation, from the things they're sealing and protecting.
Many of today's building materials are full of gross chemicals. Plywood, particle board and other not-quite-wood products are full of acetone and formaldehyde. While acetone is not technically a VOC, it's a serious toxin. Most polyurethane wood finishes have another toxin that slowly builds up inside your body, and much new carpeting even contains a number of narcotics. By applying a bio-safe sealant to these materials, you're not only protecting them, but also yourself: It's not just the paint or sealant you use, but what you're applying it to.
Now, even coatings labeled "environmentally friendly" or "zero-VOC" can still contain toxic ingredients, just not those that are prohibited by government regulations. You shouldn't go pouring house paint on your morning cereal just yet. When searching for the most eco-mindful paint, indoor or outdoor, check those cans and labels.
Next up, we'll look at a few more rules of thumb for choosing eco-friendly paint.