Just How Dangerous Are VOCs in Paint?

Open cans of paint with paintbrush
No matter which color you choose, you're probably bringing dangerous chemicals into your home in that paint can.

The smell of paint usually gives away the fact that you're probably breathing in something that's bad for your health. But did you know just how right your nasal signals are?

Lead paint, which was banned by the Consumer Product Safety Commission in 1977, is not the only type of paint that's bad for your health. (You might remember hearing in the news that children who ate chipped-off lead paint developed mental disabilities.)


In fact, unless you make a conscious effort to choose paint with your family's health and the environment in mind, you'll find that most of today's paint contains many chemicals -- known as volatile organic compounds -- that can negatively affect your health.

So just what exactly is a volatile organic compound? VOCs, as they're commonly called, are chemicals inside paint that are released into the air as you paint a wall.

Although the majority of VOCs leave the paint as the wall dries, not all of them do. In fact, paint can release VOCs into the air for years following the initial painting, putting your family at risk.

VOCs are dangerous for a couple of reasons. First, many VOCs are known carcinogens. A typical bucket of paint contains chemicals, such as benzene, methylene chloride and others, that have been linked to cancer [source: United States Environmental Protection Agency].

VOCs are also the components of paint that cause you to develop a headache after painting. In addition, the VOC-rich air in your home over the following years can put you or a family member at a higher risk of developing asthma or allergies [source: Choi et al].

So why are there VOCs in paint at all if they're so unhealthy, and are there other options? Read on to learn more.


The Function of VOCs and Alternative Options

VOCs perform a necessary function of paint, which is to solidify it. When you spread a brush loaded with paint across a wall, the VOCs that are released are the stuff of evaporation -- the chemicals that make a wet wall become dry.

That said, you don't absolutely need to have VOCs in your paint. Today, because of an increasing awareness about the known health hazards of VOCs, paint manufacturers are beginning to offer more low- and no-VOC paints.


No-VOC paint, as regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency, will have five or fewer grams of VOCs per liter of paint. (This is only for latex paint, a common type used in household painting.)

Paint with less than 250 grams of VOCs per liter is considered low-VOC paint [source: Midwest Eco-Design]. Like many healthier alternatives, no- and low-VOC paint usually costs more (about 20 to 80 percent more) than regular paint.

Because of this, some people try whipping up recipes of homemade paint, sometimes using chalk or animal products. Generally, homemade paints come with strings attached that make using them a hassle. For example, you have to consider such things as how humid the room can get, how many layers you'll need, what ingredients are necessary for the job to turn out right and how long the paint will last. Even so, some companies specialize in manufacturing all-natural paint. For a list of some of these companies, click here.

If you're looking for the healthiest alternative to standard paint, sticking to no- and low-VOC options is a good idea. If a room won't be occupied the majority of the time, like a garage or storage room, opting for regular paint might be an easier, more cost-conscious choice.

For more great links related to painting and air quality, click on to the next page.


VOCs in Paint FAQ

What are low VOC paint standards?
Generally, a low VOC paint has less than 50 grams of VOC per liter for flat and non-flat sheen.
Why are VOCs dangerous?
Volatile Organic Compounds are poisonous and can cause cancer. Moreover, they collide with the gases in the air when emitted, causing environmental damage.
How long do VOCs last after painting?
Volatile Organic Compounds tend to dissipate fairly quickly from paint, lasting only 6 months or so after application.
What is a safe level of VOCs?
According to experts, a level of 0.3 to 0.5 mg/m3 is safe.
Do VOCs in paint go away?
Most Volatile Organic Compounds dissipate very quickly from paint on their own. However, they continue to emit gas slowly for years to come.

Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • Choi, Hyunok et al. "Common Household Chemicals and the Allergy Risks in Pre-School Age Children." PLoS ONE. Oct. 18, 2010. (Dec. 26, 2010)http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0013423
  • Green Seal. "About Green Seal." 2010. (Dec. 26, 2010)http://www.greenseal.org/AboutGreenSeal.aspx
  • Midwest Eco-Design. "EPA VOC Paint Limits." Aug. 29, 2009. (Dec. 26, 2010)http://midwestecodesign.com/2009/08/29/epa-voc-paint-limits/
  • U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. "CPSC Announces Final Ban On Lead-Containing Paint." Office of Information and Public Affairs. Sept. 2, 1977. (Dec. 26, 2010)http://www.cpsc.gov/cpscpub/prerel/prhtml77/77096.html
  • United States Environmental Protection Agency. "An Introduction to Indoor Air Quality (IAQ)." (Dec. 26, 2010)http://www.epa.gov/iaq/voc.html