The Problem with Paint

The Problem with Paint

IMPORTANT NOTE: This article was accurate as of the date it was published, and was signed off on by all of the manufacturer sources quoted. That said, manufacturers frequently change their formulations and ingredients, so this article, given its age, becomes background. DO NOT rely on this article for purchasing these manufacturers’ current products. 

Low- or Zero-VOC on the label can create a false sense of security

It’s almost time to paint two more rooms in my house, and I think I will have tested every mainstream “zero-VOC” paint on the market by the time we are done. I know which brand works best for me, but it’s not a mainstream brand and is not carried by a local retailer.

Call me impatient, but ordering paint from another state, or for that matter having to drive for more than 10 minutes to get it, doesn’t work when you need to finish in the time allotted. Custom colors, like the terracotta in my kitchen, sometimes need re-tinting after I test them on the wall. And, inevitably, we run short on non-accent neutrals, which also means another run to the paint store.

As someone who does not do well around chemical odors, I can say with certainty and watering eyes that there are irritating ingredients in popular paint brands, even though their labels read “zero-VOC.” More importantly is that low- and zero-VOC labels don’t mean what many people think they do.

The EPA’s regulation of VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds) – which we cite routinely when we discuss interior products – has nothing to do with interior products or human health. Instead, the EPA set limits on VOCs in an effort to reduce outdoor air pollution. There are a number of solvents that are VOCs that can be present in paint, but they escaped regulation because they do not create smog when they react with sunlight and nitrogen.

Acetone and ammonia are examples of these unregulated solvents, which do not have to be listed on the label or the product’s Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS).  Compound this with crystalline silica, used to color at least one popular brand, and the fungicides, chemicals used to cover up odor and formaldehyde precursors used in a number of brands. The result can be a “zero-VOC” product that likely is toxic to humans.

As this blog posts, we are inviting several companies that promote low- and zero-VOC paint to discuss their ingredients, in addition to their availability, in another blog. The list includes Sherwin Williams, Benjamin Moore, Lowes, The Home Depot, AFM Safecoat, Mythic, American Pride, Yolo, Earth Paint and Bioshield.

In the meantime, I’ll be testing Harmony, the zero-VOC paint from Sherwin Williams. And I am hoping that I don’t have to re-tint anything three times like I did to match the background in the pig picture on my powder room wall.

— Nancy Kibbee is editor at naturalinteriors.com

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