Low Emitting Paints & Sealants

Volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, are chemicals that are emitted from solids and liquids, including cleaning supplies and other household products. Many paints and sealants emit volatile organic compounds, or VOCs.
Photo Credit: Associated Fabrication via Flickr

Many paints and coatings emit volatile organic compounds, or VOCs. These are chemicals that offgas from common household materials, and can cause health problems. When inhaled, they can infect people’s lungs, nose, eyes and ears. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, VOCs can cause nausea, irritation of the ears, nose and throat, loss of coordination, fatigue, dizziness, headache, an allergic skin reaction, and other problems.

One component of sustainable buildings is indoor air quality, and reducing the amount of VOCs is an important part of creating a healthy indoor environment. Therefore, it is best to choose low emitting or zero VOC paints and coatings for interiors.

Low or Zero VOC Paints

Many companies offer low or no VOC paints.

Some offer natural paints, which are made with organic substances, such as linseed oil, citrus oil, lime, clay, talcum power, casein, and natural pigments derived from minerals, insects, and other natural materials. You should check the MSDS to make sure that these paints are “natural” and non-toxic as advertised, because some green building products are subject to greenwashing.
It is even possible to make your own eco-friendly paint. Mother Earth News has a recipe for basic flour paint, which contains flower, cold water, clay filler, and powder filler.

Many well-known paint companies also offer zero VOC paints, including the following:

1. Benjamin Moore

Benjamin Moore offers Natura Waterborne paints, which emit zero VOCs, are virtually odorless, and are made from 100% acrylic latex. They come in primer, eggshell, flat and semi-gloss styles, and all except the primer come in all colors - making it an easy choice.

They meet Benjamin Moore’s own Green Promise Standard, the Green Seal GS-11 Standard and the Master Painter’s Institute Standard. They were also selected as one of the top 10 green building products in 2008.

2. Frazee Paint

Comex Group’s Frazee Paint has an UltraTech Zero VOC Line, which meets the Environmental Protection Agency’s test method 24 for zero VOCs. It is quick to dry, very low odor and is washable. It also meets the Master Painter’s Institute Standard.

UltraTech is very versatile because it can be used for homes and commercial buildings, like hospitals, schools, retail stores, offices, etc. It comes in flat, eggshell and semi-gloss.

3. Sherwin-Williams

Sherwin-Williams, the largest manufacturer of paints and coatings in America, has many suites of zero VOC paints, all of which are GreenGuard Indoor Air Quality certified (except EcoSelect). Its zero-emission paints include Emerald, Harmony, ProMar 200, ProMar 400, EcoSelect, and Pro Industrial. Emerald, Harmony and ProMar 200 were awarded Sherwin-Williams’ GreenSure designation for low air quality impacts.

Low Emitting Paints and LEED

The LEED rating systems award points to building projects that reduce the amount of VOCs offgassing from paints, sealants, wood and other products.

Low-emitting paints could contribute to the following credits in LEED for New Construction 2009:

Indoor Environmental Quality (IEQ) Credit 4.2: Low-Emitting Materials - Paints and Coatings (1 point)

• Architectural paints/coatings: VOC limits established by the Green Seal Standard GS-11, Paints, 1st Edition, May 20, 1993

• Anti-corrosive and anti-rust paints applied to interior ferrous metal substrates: VOC limit of 250 g/L as established in Green Seal Standard GC-03, Anti-Corrosive Paints, 2nd Edition, January 7, 1997

• Clear wood finishes, floor coatings, stains, primers, sealers and shellac for interior elements: VOC limit established by the South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD) Rule 1113, Architectural Coatings, rules in effect on January 1, 2004

Paint Stripper

If you believe your current wall paint is offgassing VOCs or making you sick, you can remove it with paint stripper. Solvent-based paint strippers are most common, and break the bond between the wall and the paint.

Another way to remove wall paint is by using a heat gun, which emits heat at higher temperatures than a blow dryer.

Safety Precautions for Paint Removers

Many paint strippers contain VOCs or other hazardous or flammable chemicals that have been linked to short-term health risks, such as skin and eye irritation, headaches, and nausea, and long-term health risks, like cancer and liver damage. Therefore, it’s very important that you take special safety precautions when using paint strippers.

Read the General Safety Precautions for Paint Strippers from the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission for more information about how to use them safely.

Eco-Friendly Paint Removers

It is important to purchase low-VOC paint strippers when removing toxic or high-emitting paints from your walls. It would defeat the purpose if you removed an offgassing paint with paint remover that contains the same toxins. It is best to look for low-emitting paint strippers that are non-toxic, natural or biodegradable, because they will likely be safer for your health than conventional types.

For example, Fiberlock Technologies’ Piranha Series Paint Removers remove lead-based paints from most substrates. Piranha 4 does not contain chlorinated solvents, caustics or methylene chloride, but can remove oil based paint, latex paint, elastomeric paint, cementitious asbestos paint, epoxy and urethane from almost any substrate.

Another example is SOYsolv’s Graffiti Remover removes permanent marker, spray paint, decals, inks, and enamel paint from surfaces. It is non-toxic, biodegradable and uses a soy/corn solvent, making it one of the safest graffiti removers.

Repainting After Using Paint Stripper

After stripping the walls of paint, perform a test with the new paint you have selected to ensure that it will not have negative health effects on you or emit a strong odor (VOCs). If it makes you feel sick, try another low-VOC brand of paint, or consider wall paper or paneling.


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