What Are Non-VOC Paints, and Why Does It Matter? (Part 1)

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Is anyone a fan of that “new paint smell?” (Reluctant hands go up all over the Internet.) It’s something we know we probably shouldn’t like—and granted, some people don’t—but for many of us, it’s a natural instinct to draw in a deep breath inside a freshly painted room. If so, congratulations—you have taken in a lungful of Volatile Organic Compounds, or VOCs. They’re not the best things for you, which is one reason why non-VOC paints are rapidly gaining popularity in the construction world.

What You Need to Know About VOCs

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Volatile Organic Compounds are a variety of carbon-based chemical compounds that easily evaporate into the air—hence the odor. (Don’t let the word “organic” fool you into thinking these compounds are healthy. “Organic” simply means they contain carbon in this case.) VOCs are generally toxic, and many are known to cause cancer. Trust us, you don’t want to breathe these vapors in for an extended length of time—especially not in concentrated amounts.

VOC concentration in the house is strongest in the air when the paint is freshly applied and the paint is drying. However, VOCs can continue to seep into the air in your home for several years after painting. Different studies show that VOCs in the air is typically between 3 and 10 times higher indoors as they are outdoors. Also, paint isn’t the only household product containing VOCs. The New York Department of Health indicates these chemical compounds may be present in many different household products, from nail polish to hairspray, from paint thinner to mothballs, and even new carpet and upholstery.

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Are Low-VOC Paints Any Better?

VOC levels have been reduced overall in our paint products over the past few years, and many manufacturers now promote their product lines as “low-VOC.” While this is certainly a good development, the problem is that there’s no real standard as to what qualifies as “low.” It’s the same concept as buying a “reduced-fat” food product. (Reduced by how much?) A low-VOC paint may contain slightly fewer harmful compounds than another type of paint, or it could have almost none. Furthermore, a white paint base could start off with no VOCs, but the tints added to make the color could be loaded with them. It’s difficult to tell what you’re actually getting.

Should you be terrified? Does all of this mean you’re going to get cancer or have your brain cells fried? No, not necessarily—not unless you purposefully inhale concentrated levels of these vapors. (Read this article for more information on the dangerous practice of “huffing.”) Rather, VOCs, like other pollutants, is a fact of modern life; they are around us more than we’d like, and most people won’t get sick from them, but our lives would be better if we could reduce them. The environment would be better off, too.

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Non-VOC paints are healthier for us, but they aren’t necessarily the best choice for every painting or construction project. In the next post, we’ll talk more about the pros and cons of non-VOC paints, as well as how to practice safety when non-VOC isn’t an option. For more information on the best paint choices for your construction project, call Wellbuilt at 1.917.475.1207.