Interior paints can cover enormous amounts of a building’s surface area in a building.  Walls and ceilings, as well as moldings and casings can all be painted surfaces.  Selecting a palette of paint products that have the fewest hazards possible for a given project can therefore have a magnified impact on occupants.

Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) are likely the most widely recognized indicator of the hazards contained in paints and primers.  Technically speaking, VOCs are a category of chemicals that both contain carbon (with some exceptions), and react with sunlight in the atmosphere to create smog.  Many chemicals that are VOCs can also pose hazards to building occupants, but there are also many chemicals that are hazardous but do not meet the definition of VOCs.  Therefore, in order to select the healthiest paint products possible, we need to look beyond just VOC content.

Interior latex paints commonly include resins, dispersants, preservatives, additives to prevent foaming (defoamers), and additives to promote mixing (surfactants).  Not all of these are VOCs. The substances that play these roles can carry hazards such as carcinogenicity, persistence in the environment and high toxicity, and toxicity to reproductive systems and babies in utero.

Other types of paint such as specialty and recycled paints can introduce many other toxic substances.

To avoid these bad actors, choose paint products earning the Green Seal 11 Certification.  This certification not only limits VOC content, but also prohibits many of the hazardous ingredients that might otherwise be present.  Paints earning this certification do not contain heavy metals such as lead or mercury, or other substances that cause cancer, mutations, or are reproductive toxicants.  If you’re not sure if your go-to paint products have earned this certification, contact the manufacturer to find out.

If circumstances demand that Green Seal 11-certified products can not be used on your project, you can still use Healthy Building Network’s CompAIR tool to find the best paint option among those being considered.  Entering information about a paint into the CompAIR calculator, such as the area that can be covered by a single gallon and the number of coats required, allows you to see the amount of VOCs that will be introduced to a building project.  CompAIR predicts the real-world impacts of two seemingly very similar products.  For example, you may find that a product with a slightly higher VOC content is a better choice because it requires fewer coats, and therefore contributes fewer VOCs overall than a lower VOC paint would.   

CompAIR is a useful tool to learn about the impacts of any wet-applied product because it considers substances that are volatile and hazardous, but are exempt from VOC reporting.  For example, VOC reporting might otherwise overlook substances like perchloroethylene and methylene chloride (both carcinogens) and acetone (reproductive/developmental toxicant).

For all paints, but especially those not certified to the Green Seal 11 standard, specifiers should ask manufacturers to fully disclose the paint’s ingredients to ensure your product choice introduces as few toxic substances as possible into your residents’ homes.


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