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Reduce Indoor Air Pollution with No-VOC Paint

Last Tuesday was the one-year anniversary of our pre–move-in election-night painting marathon, and we still hadn’t painted all the trim. So this weekend we finally buckled down and finished the dining room.

We used a no-VOC paint, because according to the EPA, volatile organic compounds have been linked to cancer and have lots of other health effects. These include eye, nose, and throat irritation; headaches; dizziness; nausea; and damage to the liver, kidneys, and central nervous system.

painting 020

Jason studied The Karate Kid for years to get this technique.

This may seem like a hippy-dippy this-will-never-affect-me issue, but when my office was moved to a different building, I had headaches for a couple months afterwards. (Rainbow aura migraines, too, which I’d never had before, or since.) At the time, I blamed lots of things—the fluorescent lights, sharing an office with two other people, the stress of moving—but now I’m thinking it may have been the VOCs. The new office had freshly painted walls, new carpet, and new furniture, all of which off-gas toxic chemicals.

While paint can emit VOCs for years, the worst occurs as it’s drying, leading to levels in your freshly painted house of up to a thousand times higher than outdoors. That’s why it’s recommended that you paint in a well-ventilated area. A major benefit of no-VOC paint is that it doesn’t require as much ventilation—a real boon when you’re painting in the middle of the winter. I couldn’t smell a thing.

We chose Harmony from Sherwin Williams mostly because of our proximity to a store, but also because it’s one of only a few no-VOC options out there. To be clear, no-VOC paints actually do contain some VOCs—less than 5 grams per liter. By comparison, low-VOC paints generally contain less than 150 g/l. Adding tint to the base adds another couple grams per liter, but that’s minimal.

VOCs help to bind colors to the paint, so their presence actually does improve the paint’s performance. This is why our no-VOC paint doesn’t come in truly saturated colors. (And why we had to chose a lighter shade of yellow than my niece wanted for her bedroom—sorry Kelly!)

Unfortunately, it also dries as slow as regular paint*, which really sucks when one of your cats decides to ambush the other in a wet corner. Ollie ended up with patches of white on the tips of his ears and the back of his head—cute, but still toxic if he’d swallowed it.

* Changed from “slower than,” because a commenter pointed out that there’s no difference in drying time.


Comment from Morganna
Time November 12, 2009 at 12:38 am

I’ve used Olympic Premium paint from Lowes with very good results. It seems to dry quickly enough, but it’s the only paint I’ve tried, and we live in a very dry area, so what do I know? 🙂

Also, did you know your Consumer Reports link only works for members/subscribers?

Comment from Brenda Pike
Time November 12, 2009 at 11:02 am

You know, I’d read somewhere that the VOCs made it dry quicker, but when I compare the fact sheets for a no-VOC and a regular Sherwin Williams paint, they say the drying time is the same. Thanks for pointing that out.

And I know Consumer Reports is subscription only, but it really does help me make a lot of my decisions. I want to offer people the opportunity to check my sources.

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