Choosing Low-VOC Products Is Not Enough

There's still stuff in there that you should watch for.

An aerial shot of paint in cans with a clean brush hovering over them

Steve Cicero / Getty Images

In these times, when we are both building tighter building envelopes and worried about air quality, avoiding volatile organic compounds (VOCs) is important. In fact, one of the key points in any sustainable design discussion is around choosing low-VOC paints, finishes, and materials. But is it enough?

In Treehugger's post on paints, VOCs are described as "carbon-containing organic chemicals in indoor air that come from building materials, furnishings, and carpet and detach (also called off-gassing) from the product into the air." In the post "What are VOCs?" it is noted they contribute to ground-level ozone. This is a major reason they are regulated and a bit of a problem.

Bill Walsh, founder of the Healthy Building Network, standing at a podium
Bill Walsh is the founder of the Healthy Building Network.

Lloyd Alter

According to Healthy Building Network, just choosing low-VOC is not enough because "products labeled as zero- or low-VOC can still contain hazardous volatile compounds or other chemicals of concern." They explain the EPA's definition of a VOC is "any compound of carbon, including carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, carbonic acid, metallic carbides or carbonates and ammonium carbonate, which participates in atmospheric photochemical reactions, except those designated by EPA as having negligible photochemical reactivity."

Photochemical reactivity is what causes ground-level ozone and smog; that is why they wrote the rule. Even if it is not particularly good for you, if it doesn't make smog, the EPA doesn't consider it a VOC. Healthy Building Network states: "Inclusion on the exempt list does not mean that the chemical has been tested and found to be of low concern to human health and the environment. It ONLY means that the chemical is not expected to contribute to smog formation. Yes, that’s right, smog."

Smog is not exactly an indoor air quality issue as it needs sunlight to form, but harmful chemicals are, and it turns out that a low-VOC label is no guarantee that they are absent.

"Of the exempt chemicals, just under half have a high or very high concern for ozone depletion potential and/or global warming potential. Several have high or moderate concern for carcinogenicity - meaning they have the potential to cause cancer. "

Healthy Building Network suggests we have to consider a lot more than just VOCs when assessing the health of materials and notes we cannot rely on the EPA, which doesn't regulate indoor air quality.

"At this time in the US, consumers cannot rely on regulations to guarantee product safety with regard to indoor air quality because there are simply very few regulations that address indoor air quality. As the EPA notes, “Even if we had authority to regulate indoor air quality, it would be difficult to regulate household (or other) products because we have no authority to collect information on the chemical content of products in the marketplace (nor does any Federal Agency).”
Declare Label

International Living Future Institute

There are many reasons why I prefer being a writer rather than an architect, and this is one of them. It's enough to make you throw up your hands and wonder where you can turn. One source that I wish had been around when I was an architect is the International Living Future Institute's Declare program, where "manufacturers voluntarily disclose product information on easy-to-read Declare labels." It is like nutrition labels that "disclose all intentionally-added ingredients and residuals at or above 100ppm (0.01%) present in the final product by weight" and "each ingredient must be reported with a chemical name, CAS number, and percentage or percentage range."

Transparency isn't something that you want in paint, but it is something that you want from its manufacturer. Anyone shopping or specifying should demand it. As Healthy Building Network concludes: "As consumers, we have the power to influence manufacturer disclosure by preferring products that do not use hazardous chemicals and have full content disclosure."

We could say this about just about anything: If you don't know what's in it, don't buy it.

View Article Sources
  1. "Title 40 - Protection of Environment." Code of Federal Regulations.

  2. Antipova, Anzhelika (Angela). "Analysis of Exposure to Ambient Air Pollution: Case Study of the Link Between Environmental Exposure and Children’S School Performance in Memphis, TN." Spatiotemporal Analysis of Air Pollution and its Application in Public Health, 2020, pp. 217-275., doi:10.1016/b978-0-12-815822-7.00011-x

  3. "Indoor Air." United States Environmental Protection Agency.