Most conventional paints and coatings contain and emit Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs). Some types of VOCs contribute to smog, and many VOCs are emitted or “offgassed” indoors and contribute to indoor air pollution. VOCs can cause respiratory problems and some are known carcinogens.
Fortunately, almost every major paint manufacturer (and retailer) now has a low-VOC or zero-VOC wall paint product line. Most of these products are also low-odor, as some VOCs are responsible for to that noxious “new paint smell.”
I maintain an online product listing of Low-VOC and Zero-VOC Wall Paints, which I recently updated. Most paint products on the market are synthetic (e.g., latex/acrylic/vinyl) paints. But my listing also includes natural paints (i.e., plant- or mineral-based, non-synthetic paints).
A few paint manufacturers, such as AFM Safecoat and YOLO Colorhouse formulate their entire line of paints and primers to be low- or zero-VOC and low-toxic. While most low-VOC paints are interior paints, some brands (including those two) also offer low-VOC exterior paints.
My listing indicates which paint lines have been Green Seal certified or SCS Indoor Advantage Gold certified. GreenGuard also certifies paints; it has a basic Indoor Air Quality Certified program, as well as a more stringent Children and Schools Certified program. All of these certification programs are primarily focused on testing products’ VOC emissions.
Unfortunately, synthetic paints (even the low- and zero-VOC options) often contain other toxic compounds, beyond VOCs, such as phthalates (which are endocrine-disrupting chemicals), certain heavy metals, propylene glycol and glycol ethers (PGEs), and toxic biocides or fungicides. (Green Seal’s certification standard prohibits the use of some of those compounds.) See this Pharos article for additional information on paint toxicity.
More information and links are provided in my overview (PDF).
Miriam Landman is an accomplished writer, editor, and sustainability advisor with expertise in green living, green building, and sustainable communities. For daily links to sustainable solutions and success stories, connect to her Facebook page for The Green Spotlight. To receive quarterly email updates from The Green Spotlight, please sign up here.