Part Four: The Problem with Paint

Part Four: 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. The questions are relatively simple, but if you would like help in getting guaranteed answers about certifications on a current product, sign up at:

“Green” certifications that test chemical emissions don’t require compliance until long after the paint is dry

GREENGUARD®, Green Seal and SCS Indoor Advantage Gold. They’re all top third-party certifications designed to help us choose paint that will not make the air in our homes dangerous to breathe.

But while these labels mean chemical emissions have been measured — or in the case of Green Seal dangerous ingredients have been prohibited — none of them tells us what we are breathing at the time the paint is being applied. And certifications that test chemical emissions don’t require compliance with safety limits until 14 days after the paint is dry.

“When it comes to verifying sustainable claims, it may be wiser to start by being a ‘doubting Thomas’ instead of a ‘gullible Pollyanna’ …,” says Michael Mauch, AIA, LEED AP and principal of RWA Architects in Cincinnati, OH. “Third-party verification is supposed to work like Politifact — an organization to sort out the truth. But third-party verification is not a perfect system. In theory, it works, but in reality, there are many influences that can sway the outcome.”

More of Mauch’s clients – and more people who are building and remodeling homes in general — are demanding low- and zero-VOC (Volatile Organic Compound) paints. It’s important, Mauch says, that they learn to use “green” certification labels as a guide – not a guarantee.

How does the average person with limited scientific knowledge do this? As explained in Part Three, it helps to understand that zero VOC doesn’t mean nontoxic. It also helps to understand some commonly used green standards.

CA Specification 01350

A special standard developed by the state of California is frequently used by certification programs and often touted as the most stringent health-based standard in the United States today.  This standard is the Standard Method for the Testing and Evaluation of Volatile Organic Chemical Emissions from Indoor Sources Using Environmental Chambers V1.1, (CA Specification 01350).

SCS Indoor Air Advantage™ Gold

Specification 01350 and South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD) Rule 1113 are the basis for Indoor Advantage™ Gold certification, which is issued by Scientific Certification Systems (SCS), a third-party certifier.

The California Specification 01350 standard sets chronic reference exposure limits (CRELS) for 36  Volatile Organic Compounds known to cause cancer or have negative health effects. This standard also spells out how to test paint, which is applied to drywall, a metal plate or glass, then placed in a small environmental air chamber or box where conditions are controlled by standardizing ventilation or air flow rate, temperature and humidity. The laboratory completing the SCS emissions test begins collecting air samples from the chamber for chemicals the paint is off-gassing 11 days after the paint sample has been placed in the chamber.

“This is what is required by the standard,” says Nicole Munoz, SCS technical manager for environmental services.

The standard was initially developed to minimize the health effects to building occupants from off-gassing building materials in new construction, Munoz says.  Over the years, she says, it has evolved to include the single-family residential scenario for building materials, but again, the intent is to minimize the health-issues for the occupants – not the painter.

“As with any certification label, it is important to understand the limits of the criteria being assessed,” Munoz says. “In this case, the building occupant is within the scope of the standard, and not the applicator. OSHA requirements would be more applicable for the applicator of the product and use of acute exposure limits.”

Munoz says that the VOCs of concern under CA 01350 are compounds that are highly volatile and have peak emission values within the first 24 to 72 hours of application. After that, she says, emissions typically decrease quickly over the 14-day testing period.  When SCS sampling starts on the 11th day, the compounds are diminishing, and the focus becomes emissions that an occupant might be exposed to on a chronic basis, she says.

GREENGUARD® Indoor Air Quality Certification and GREENGUARD® Children & Schools Certification

The small chamber method also is used in testing paint for GREENGUARD® Indoor Air Quality Certification and GREENGUARD® Children & Schools certification.

“It is not practical to test paint in a room because that room would need to be constructed in such a way that there are no other emissions sources other than the paint: basically, a steel room with drywall walls that can be swapped out every time you want to test,” says Rachel Belew, public relations and communications manager at the GREENGUARD Environmental Institute. “And, you would need different rooms for each environment, such as a classroom, or an office. In theory, this would be great, but we must balance science with marketplace feasibility.”

GREENGUARD certification also complies with CA 01350, but goes a step beyond it. While 36 chemicals have been assigned CRELS and are covered in CA 01350, GREENGUARD requires that those chemicals meet half of their respective CREL or 1/100th of their Threshold Limit Values (TLVs), whichever limit is more stringent. TLVs are air quality standards – set by the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists – for the amounts of chemicals in the air that almost all healthy adult workers are predicted to be able to tolerate without adverse effects.

The limit for formaldehyde – a known carcinogen – changed Jan. 1 in California, and certifiers have until next January to comply.

In addition to the VOCs covered in CA 01350, GREENGUARD sets limits on more than 360 other chemicals that haven’t been assigned CRELs. GREENGUARD Children & Schools is a more stringent certification because it sets limits on hundreds of potentially hazardous chemical that are not covered by CA 01350, and because, for each of the CA 01350 chemicals addressed by GREENGUARD Children & Schools Certification, GREENGUARD requires that emissions of those chemicals are even lower than what’s required in CA 01350, Belew says.

While GREENGUARD starts testing air from the sample chamber after six hours to study the product’s emissions decay, compliance with the certification’s limits is not required until the sample has been in the box for 14 days.

Green Seal

Green Seal, another third-party certifier, does not use the small chamber testing process and does not rely on emission results after paint application. Instead, a paint sample is heated and passed through a gas chromatographer, which determines the VOC level. Then, the Green Seal staff reviews the manufacturer’s formulation, which they are required to provide. In this review, carcinogens are prohibited.

“The product cannot contain any ingredients that are carcinogens, mutagens, reproductive toxins, hazardous air pollutants or ozone-depleting compounds,” says Andrew Beauchamp, technical coordinator for Green Seal.

An exception is made for titanium dioxide – an exceptionally white pigment, used in everything from food coloring to make-up — and is believed to pose a cancer risk when inhaled as a dust.

“It is also important to note that the Green Seal (GS-11) standard for paint has requirements that go beyond just indoor air quality and reviews the entire life cycle of the product,” Beauchamp says.  “It is the only standard that has requirements for formula composition of the paints to prohibit chemicals of concern, requires proven performance, reduced packaging or use of recycled materials, and requires consumer education about proper use of the product and disposal.”

Green Seal set limits on allowed VOCs at 50 grams per liter for flat finishes and 100 grams per liter for non-flat finishes.

Green Wise

Like all other product categories, the paint industry has trade associations, and those associations also have developed indoor-air quality certifications. Green Wise certification is offered by the Coatings Research Group Inc. — an international association of paint and coatings manufacturers.

Likewise, some manufacturers have developed their own green designations. Benjamin Moore points to its Green Promise designation, and Sherwin Williams has GreenSure, although it also has achieved the third-party GREENGUARD Children & Schools Indoor Air Quality certification.

Like Green Seal, Green Wise limits VOCs to 50 grams per liter for flat finishes and 100 grams per liter for non-flat finishes. It also prohibits hazardous chemicals such as formaldehyde and methylene chloride. So while it can be argued that Green Wise is not a true third-party label, it also can be argued that the certification adheres to standards that prohibit certain VOCs.

“Our goal is to be certified by the highest standards,” says Kleir Kleinknecht, director of Mythic Paint, which has Green Wise certification.  “Since our products outreach the depth of most standards, the more robust the certification, the easier it is for customers to discern from competing green-washing companies.” ©


  • Pingback:A Healthy Paint Rebuttal, Part IV | Natural Interiors® Blog
    Posted at 08:56h, 23 January Reply

    […] Like other participants in our rebuttal series, Earthpaint disagrees with builders who say low VOC paints don’t perform well.  While this video won’t give you an Earthpaint demonstration, it will give you something that is equally important. Increasingly, science is telling us that there are limits to the amount of chemicals we can safely be exposed to.  Tom  Rioux  is among a growing number of people who have learned the hard way. Watch this video and learn why he developed Earthpaint. And for more information on paint ingredients, click here. […]

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    Posted at 06:27h, 06 February Reply

    […] Williams. Harmony, Sherwin Williams’ zero VOC paint, has GREENGUARD Children & Schools indoor air quality certification, which no doubt has some stringent requirements. But this video’s discussion of […]

  • Shirley McFarland
    Posted at 11:31h, 15 July Reply

    I have environmental illness, or an extreme hyper-sensitivity to new building materials, including paints. Could you please advise me of the paint with the lowest chemical-of-any-kind content and lowest VOC’s? When I tried to go see a doctor that moved into a new building 3 years ago, I had burning eyes, throat and lungs and got a headache. I had to leave the building!

    I’m desperate as I need to get our house painted and need new floors, too. If you have any information on flooring without coatings and totally natural, I’d appreciate that, too.

    Thank you.

    • Nancy Kibbee
      Posted at 12:53h, 15 July Reply


      A lot of people with chemical sensitivities report that the low-VOC designation is not very helpful because the paint can still contain ingredients that trigger their problems, see Part Three: The Problem With Paint.

      We have heard good things about some of the paints in this post, in addition to Earthpaint, Unearthed Paints and American Clay, although it is a plaster. It is probably a good idea to test a paint in a small area before painting your whole house.

      It would be easier to discuss your flooring question knowing what category of flooring, hardwood, tile, etc., you have interest in, and also what city you live in as we might have a member there who can assist you.

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