Los Angeles–based interior designer Sarah Barnard devises décor for people who have chemical sensitivities to paint compounds and additives. But she also works with those who simply have heard about less toxic interior coatings.
“We get lots of folks who aren’t necessarily setting out to be green and save the world,” Barnard says. “They’re just ordinary folks who are concerned about their families.”
Today’s paints emit fewer chemicals and consume less energy than conventional coatings when manufactured. As more is publicized about the health and environmental benefits of these paints, “green” has become the paint industry’s favorite color. If you shopped for paint recently, you probably noticed a lot more buzzwords on the shelf, including No-VOC, low-odor, ceramic and sustainably formulated. Manufacturers are rushing to slap environmentally friendly labels on the sides of gallon cans in the $7 billion U.S. paint market.
After years of comprising little more than a rounding error in the market, sales of environmentally friendly paint surged in the past 2 years to as much as 5 percent, estimates Paul Novack of Green Depot, which is a chain of green-building- products stores that is based in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Tighter government regulation of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that are found in most paint have helped to make green paint mainstream. However, going green on paint might have you feeling blue when it comes to performance when you compare it with that of conventional paint.
KICK OUT THE VOCs. The big trend, by far, when it comes to marketing paint is for manufacturers to tout the paint’s lack of VOCs—the foul-smelling toxins that are released into the air. Just about every paint manufacturer has a line of zero-VOC paints. These sell for an average of $26 to $35 a gallon, which is about 40 percent more than conventional paints.
Some VOCs react in the atmosphere to form smog, and because of that, they have come under increased federal and state scrutiny. Environmental Protection Agency expects to announce late this year new standards that mandate that all flat paints must have VOC levels of less than 100 grams per liter. Right now, flats must have levels of less than 250 grams, and zero-VOC paints must contain no more than 5 grams per liter. (That’s right. Zero-VOC doesn’t necessarily mean VOC-free.) Some states and municipalities are even more strict. Los Angeles, for instance, mandates that all flat paints must have less than 50 grams per liter.
Certification: Putting Paint to the Test
However, you should know that these limits can be misleading. VOCs that do not form smog, such as acetate and ammonia, are considered VOC-exempt solvents. They’re poisonous, but they don’t count against a paint’s VOC status. Colorants, solvents and other caustic additives that lend paint its covering and durability properties also are not included in VOC ratings.
In fact, the colorants that are added during tinting when you buy paint often put the VOCs that were taken out during the manufacturing process right back into the paint! These colorants are not regulated by EPA nor any legislative body. A deep tint can put an extra 50 to 150 grams per liter of VOCs in a paint that might have had less than 100 to begin with, says John Kennedy of Evonik, which is a manufacturer of paint chemicals.
This spring, Benjamin Moore rolled out Natura, the first paint that claims to remain zero-VOC even after tinting. It sells for a hefty $46 per gallon. It also claims to have “no odor” and the “lowest emissions” among all national paint lines, but there’s really no standard that measures odor, says Christine Chase, who is an environmental scientist with Green Seal, a Washington-based environmental certification organization.
So, how do you really know what’s in your paint? Scott Burt, who owns Topcoat Finishes, a paint retailer in Jericho, Vt., suggests that you look at the Material Safety Data Sheet—a list of physical properties, health effects, toxicity and more—that many paint companies have on their Web sites to list the ingredients and hazards of their products. Any listing of benzenes, polyvinyl acetate or toluene should raise red flags for anyone.