What is VOC in Paint and Why Does it Matter?

Warning: The author gets excited about some pretty boring science stuff

You want to paint your house and you are starting to look at different paints. You keep seeing the letters VOC, this product is low VOC this product is higher VOC etc. What does it mean and how is it relevant to your project?

“Volatile organic compound (VOC) emissions from consumer and commercial products are a significant contributing factor in the creation of air pollution in urban areas. The use of consumer and commercial products results in emissions of VOCs from solvent-based products, and to a lesser extent, water-based products. These emissions contribute to the formation of ground-level ozone and fine particulate matter, which form smog.”

Volatile Organic Compounds in Consumer and Commercial Products. (5 May, 2015). http://www.ec.gc.ca/cov-voc/

This is a great definition from the Canadian government. In painting, the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) is one of our main standard setters and they utilize a much more sciencey definition. Essentially, there are very interesting chemicals that do any number of things to our paints (stabilize, thin, help adhere to a surface, etc) these chemicals dry but are not present in the cured paint coating. These very interesting chemicals, once out of the can, are very fast to change into other chemicals that harm the environment. These useful chemicals are great to study in a lab or theorize about, but eliminating them from our use in architectural coatings would be fabulous!

VOC manufacture and addition to our paint products is a procedure that can create environmental problems. Some common paint additives are, “benzene, formaldehyde, kerosene, ammonia, toluene, and xylene, all of which are known carcinogens and neurotoxins.” No process is perfect so there is a risk of contamination even before the paint is put into the can. Once out of the can these chemicals are best avoided.

Avoiding VOCs makes our job as paint applicators much simpler. Zero VOC paint is a pleasure to work with as our personal protective gear requirements are very low. A workplace without known carcinogens is better than a workplace with carcinogens; painting with zero VOC paint makes jobsites better. There are fewer hazardous chemicals from start to finish using zero VOC paints, less waste and much simpler disposal or recycling.

Green building initiatives like LEED standardize and promote environmentally friendly building and maintenance practices. LEED VOC classification is in place, “to reduce the quantity of indoor air contaminants that are odorous, irritating and/or harmful to the comfort and well-being of installers and occupants.” Reducing really exciting chemistry into simple terms (odorous, irritating, etc.) helps kick in a self interest mechanism that empowers consumers and end users to care about really fancy chemistry. Self interest is a great start when looking to make significant changes to the environment.

There have been great advances in paint technology that make painting an ever more pleasurable pursuit. My copy of the Paint and Coatings Testing Manual has over 1000 pages and is rife with excitement over advances in green painting developments. The Canadian Paint and Coatings Association lists annual retail sales of paint products at $10 billion. Education for consumers (paint contractors and our clients) is vital to create the increasing demand for zero VOC paints. This demand will result in an increasing supply of great environmentally sustainable coatings for an expanding list of surfaces.

An important thing to remember and a myth to dispel is that “green” products are not as durable. While there was a shift when stricter rules were put in place and paint manufacturers had to quickly change formulas to comply with the new standard, current products are more durable than ever and safer to use for the painter and environment. Ask your painting contractor how they intend to paint your project safely, and how they will dispose of paint and materials so you know that your job site will be safe and that you are doing your part to protect the environment.