This is a question many ask themselves and not just indoor air quality geeks like me. Many homeowners, contractors and consumers have been wondering about this too. Here is what I tell them…
What is a VOC? It stands for Volatile Organic Compounds, or carbon-based chemicals of which there are thousands and thousands that easily evaporate into the air and become part of the air quality. Harmful VOCs are not always toxic, but they do have compounding long-term health effects. VOCs can cause headaches, nausea, inability to concentrate and even damage to livers, kidneys. Studies in schools & workplaces have shown a correlation between air quality with high levels of VOCs and lower productivity in workers and students.
“Low VOC” & “No VOC” Paint? In the chemical industry, Low VOC is used to describe a product with VOC content at or below 150 g/L, Ultra-low-VOC products have VOC content that’s below 50 g/L. Zero-VOC paints typically contain VOC content of less than 5 grams per liter. However, paints in any of these categories will change once you choose the color. The chemicals used to create the color often contain large amounts of VOCs. So, now you no longer have a low or no VOC paint. The chemicals in the color additive modifies the base paint, not only in its appearance but significantly in its VOC load as well.
What’s the big difference between VOC content & VOC emissions? These are two different descriptors and are rarely ever the same. Contrary to what we would think, a study by UL proved many times, even paints with less VOC content had high VOC emissions into the air. They concluded that there was no way to predict a paint’s VOC emission level or “off-gassing” amount from the VOC content level. Companies will often utilize whichever of the two levels are less, then use that number to advertise their low or no VOC paint, when in fact they do not qualify.
Types of VOCs matter? Sure do. The US government defines these parameters based on VOC amounts. However, these VOC amounts only reference the specific VOCs on the government’s watch list (my term). If a VOC exists but isn’t on the Government’s list of VOCs to watch, then there is no limit to the amount that can go into a paint. In other words, there only needs to be a low amount of the listed, or watched, VOC – not ALL VOCs. Many a company’s introduction of new VOCs outpaces the government’s ability to monitor in a timely way.
Why should I care? We have been referred to as the “indoor generation” as most North American’s spend 90% of our time indoors – at work, at school and in our homes. We are constantly bombarded with thousands of VOCs on the daily with new VOCs begin discovered all the time. VOCs are harmful for our health for us to breathe. With so much new building, remodeling and upgrading of our indoor spaces these last few years, its important to consider the effect this has on our indoor air environment and our health and safety. Good news is there are strategies to help minimize the concentration of indoor VOCs and maintain a healthy and safe indoor air environment.
– Andre’ Lacroix
V.P. EZ Breathe Healthy Home Solutions, V.P. Basement Health Association, Certified Healthy Homes Specialist, Certified Indoor Environmentalist, Certified Radon Measurement Provider