Note: this post was originally written by Daniel DiClerico and posted to Consumer Reports News on April 28th, 2008
At my local home center, I’m seeing more interior paints whose cans say that the finishes have few or no VOCs. What are VOCs, and what do the numbers mean?
The seal has definitely been broken on the issue of VOCs, or volatile organic compounds, in paint. You can expect to see more brands touting their virtuous VOC content.
VOCs are solvents that get released into the air as the paint dries. Other products also emit solvents, including adhesives, cleaning supplies, and even some home furnishings. VOCs can cause acute symptoms, including headaches and dizziness. The long-term effects are less certain, but according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, some VOCs are suspected carcinogens.
The federal government caps the VOC content in paint at 250 grams per liter (g/l) for flat finishes and 380 g/l for other finishes, including low-luster, semi gloss, etc. However, some manufacturers have opted to comply with more stringent limits 50 g/l for all finishes set by California s South Coast Air Quality Management District. These products include Benjamin Moore Aura, True Value Easy Care, and Glidden Evermore. In the past, low-VOC paints have performed poorly in our tests, but these products all got high marks in our latest tests of low-luster interior paints.
The Ozone Transport Commission, a multistate organization created under the Clean Air Act, also has a model rule that limits flat coatings to 100 g/l and non-flat coatings to 150 g/l. It has been adopted by the District of Columbia and Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Virginia. Any paint sold in these places must be OTC-compliant.
A handful of paints whose manufacturers claim they contain zero VOCs are now on the market. One is Mythic, which sells for $35 to $45 per gallon at independent dealers nationwide. If you’re a reader of shelter magazines, you’ve probably seen the print ads for Mythic. Another zero-VOC paint is Freshaire Choice, a Home Depot exclusive that sells for $35 to $38 a gallon. Freshaire has adopted a more wholesome marketing approach: It’s good for your family and better for our world.
The base of other paints might also be free of VOCs, but when any pigment is added at the point of sale, the VOC level climbs as high as 150 g/l, according to ICI Paints, which manufacturers Freshaire Choice. But the makers of Mythic and Freshaire Choice both say that the color pigments used in their finishes contain no VOCs.
Mythic and Freshaire Choice use a VOC-free color additive that is supposed to eliminate not only harmful solvents but also the telltale odor of a freshly painted room, according to their manufacturers. Carl E. Smith, CEO of the Greenguard Environmental Institute, argues that measuring emissions is as important as identifying the VOC level in a paint. You can have a low count on VOC, but still have high emissions, says Smith. That’s why Greenguard, which describes itself as an industry-independent, third-party testing organization, makes emissions central to its certification process. Currently, Freshaire Choice earns the Greenguard seal, as does Benjamin Moore Aura, whose low-luster and flat paints scored an excellent and a very good overall score, respectively. Mythic has not yet been tested by Greenguard.
Consumer Reports has not yet tested Mythic or Freshaire Choice, but both will be considered for our 2009 report of interior paints. We don’t know whether these finishes will endure our typical hiding, fading, and stain resistance tests.
Remember, even though a paint might have low or no VOCs, it doesn’t do you any good if it needs constant touch-ups or reapplying.
The issue of surfactant leaching can also be known as streak staining, weeping, exudation, surfactant staining, and other similar names. This is known to occur with exterior latex paints when the environmental conditions cause the water-soluble components of the paint to be extracted and concentrated in deposits on the paint surface. Surfactant leaching is more readily apparent visually with accent colors, especially deep and dark colors, but it can also happen with light colors and whites, especially with tans and beiges. Both the formulation of the paint and the conditions in which the paint is applied and dried directly affect the likelihood of this happening and the severity of the effects.
All latex paints include ingredients that will eventually come out of the paint film when exposed, such as glycols, thickeners, surfactants, dispersants, wetting agents, and others.
Environmental moisture, including rain and dew, will generally leach out these materials in the first few weeks of exposure. Prevailing weather conditions can cause a majority of water-soluble ingredients to come to the surface as the paint dries, or soon thereafter, and these usually manifest as blotches or shiny streaks. Light rain and dew can also result in the extraction of water soluble substances, also known as surfactant leaching, if they occur soon after painting.
The negative visual effects of surfactant leaching will usually be weathered off after about a month of normal exposure in exterior environments, but removal before this period can be very difficult, especially if sunshine has baked the streaks or blotches into the paint surface. Power washing must be undertaken with special care, as new paint can be tender or easily damaged before it has fully cured or dried out.
Therefore, Golden Brush Painting suggests that our clients take no action to have such exterior services repainted or cleaned because the problem should fix itself in time. Surfactant leaching generally does not affect the paint is integrity or durability adversely.
At Harris & Ruth, we strive to formulate our latex paints with as little of these water-soluble substances present as possible, which will help keep this leaching to a minimum. Although universal tinting colorants contain glycols and surfactants, we do our best to achieve good color acceptance, good paint stability, positive application properties, and good film formation to ensure our clients receive the best looking results possible with minimal surfactant leaching.