How Low-VOC Paint Works

Ahhhh. Breathe deeply. Smells good, right? For some people, the smell of a new coat of paint ranks up there with fresh cut grass and gasoline. Maybe cosmetic companies could distill that scent, package it and sell it as perfume. What would they call it? Eau de carcinogen? Parfum de respiratory problems?

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Spilling the paint should be the least of your worries; many paints release high levels of volatile organic compounds that can contribute to a range of health problems.
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On second thought, maybe selling it isn't such a good idea. Typical household paint contains up to 10,000 chemicals, of which 300 are known toxins and 150 have been linked to cancer [source: Chadderdon, Grafman]. Some of the most harmful chemicals found in paint are volatile organic compounds, or VOCs. These chemicals aren't something you want to spray on your body or potentially even keep inside your house.

VOCs are unstable, carbon-containing compounds that readily vaporize into the air. When they enter the air, they react with other elements to produce ozone, which causes air pollution and a host of health issues including breathing problems, headache, burning, watery eyes and nausea. Some VOCs also have been linked to cancer, as well as kidney and liver damage [source: Chadderdon].

As paint dries, these harmful VOCs are released into the air at high levels. Indoor VOC levels are routinely 10 times higher than outdoor levels, and up to 1,000 times higher immediately after painting [source: Pennock]. Although VOC levels are highest during and soon after painting, they continue seeping out for several years. In fact, only 50 percent of the VOCs may be released in the first year [source: Green Seal "Proposed"].

So perhaps it's not so hard to believe that paint-related products are one of the worst environmental offenders. They're the second largest source of VOC emissions into the atmosphere after automobiles, responsible for roughly 11 billion pounds every year [source: Pennock, Grafman]. Painters regularly exposed to paint vapors have an increased incidence of several types of cancers, impaired brain function, renal dysfunction and other health problems [source: International Programme on Chemical Safety].

Armed with this information, consumers have begun to demand safer alternatives. Enter low-VOC and no-VOC paints, which are now widely available and sold by most major paint manufacturers.

You may be wondering what took them so long. The answer lies in the composition of paint. VOCs were once considered essential to the paint's performance. Find out more about the makeup of paint on the next page.