Have you ever had the excitement of a newly painted home or piece of furniture dented by the fact that everybody seems to have a headache, nausea, nose, eye, or throat irritation after the paint job?
The problem could be that the paint you used contained Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs).
But what are VOCs? What does low or zero VOC mean? Do VOCs present any health risks? How long do VOCs last after the paint has dried? These are some of the questions we answer in this article. We end the article by providing some tips on how you can reduce your exposure to VOCs.
What Are VOCs?
The Minnesota Department of Health defines VOCs as “a large group of chemicals found in many products we use to build and maintain our homes.” The same department adds that “Once these chemicals are in our homes, they are released or ‘off-gas’ into the indoor air we breathe.”
Many chemicals used in manufacturing paint emit VOCs. The fumes emitted by these chemicals are partly responsible for the familiar smell of newly painted houses or products. However, some of the VOCs do not produce any odor.
Thanks to increased awareness about the harms of VOCs, manufacturers have innovated ways to create low and zero VOC paints. These paints have a significantly lower amount of VOCs than traditional paints, while zero VOC paints have almost no VOCs.
Even though VOCs are associated with paint, other familiar sources of VOC include air fresheners, cosmetics, cooking processes, caulks (material used for sealing seams and joints to avoid leakage), gasoline, upholstery, adhesives, and cosmetics.
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How are Low vs. Zero VOCs Measured?
The volume of VOCs present in paint is measured in grams per liter (g/L). For low VOC paints, the maximum amount of VOC acceptable is 150 g/L and 50 g/L for ultra-low VOC paints.
Zero VOC paints contain no more than 5g/L. Other natural paints exist that contain no VOCs at all. Examples of such paints include chalk paint and milk paint.
Health Risks of Breathing VOCs
The health risks associated with breathing VOCs are contingent on the amount inhaled, the specific chemicals inhaled, and the duration and frequency of inhaling the fumes.
These health risks can either be nonthreatening or severe, depending on the extent of exposure. Some of the less severe side effects of inhaling VOCs include headaches, nausea, dizziness, irritation of the throat, nose, eyes, and difficulty breathing. Breathing in VOCs may also trigger episodes for people living with asthma.
A study published in the scientific and medical publications database, ScienceDirect.com concludes that “there was strong evidence suggesting that VOCs, especially aromatic compounds, and aliphatic compounds, were associated with increased asthma symptoms.”
Long-term exposure to VOCs can be fatal. The provider of health information, Healthline.com, reports that inhaling copious amounts of VOCs over an extended period could damage the liver, the kidneys, and the entire central nervous system.
VOCs belong to a class of substances called carcinogens. This means that your paint likely contains chemicals that can cause cancer.
Off-Gassing and its Relationship to VOCs
Off-gassing is when gases and particulate matter are released off the surface of a liquid or solid product. These gases mix with the air in the environment around the source.
The company providing technology that destroys pollutants such as mold, bacteria, and viruses, Molecule.Science.com, says, “Off-gassing is when products release particulate matter and gases that were formerly trapped in a liquid or solid form.”
Molecule.Science.com adds that “The resulting gases, known as volatile organic compounds (VOCs), are often carcinogenic or can react with other common air components to form known carcinogens.”
The process of off-gassing is a slow and insidious one. Its effects are most profound indoors. The off-gassing process usually takes several weeks, and its effects can remain in the environment for months.
Chemicals like formaldehyde and butyl acetate are commonly used in the manufacturing industry. The products manufactured from these chemicals get into our homes, and we inhale their scents as we go about our daily business. Their odors remain on the surfaces of manufactured products even months after they leave the factory.
But the absence of smell is not indicative of an absence of off-gassing. VOCs may continue to release traces of gases into the air even after their odors are no longer detectable.
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Does Natural and Non-Toxic Mean Low-VOC or Zero-VOC?
Natural paint was popularized when Livos, a German company, manufactured the world’s first all-natural paint in 1974. These environmentally-friendly paints are entirely biodegradable, non-toxic, and made from 100 percent natural raw materials.
Natural paints are made from natural sources and may be milk-based, plant-based, or clay-based. All synthetic chemicals and other harmful compounds found in traditional paints are avoided when making natural paints. This makes natural and non-toxic paints zero-VOC paints.
However, even these natural paints off-gas. This is because of the presence of synthetic solvents. Fortunately, most of these solvents evaporate within a few hours of use and no longer off-gas once they dry up.
For How Long do VOCs Last after Paint has Dried?
Paint typically dries anywhere between some hours to a couple of days after applying. But VOCs do not vanish after the paint has dried. They do not disappear after the smell of paint becomes undetectable either. But for how long exactly do they continue to permeate the environment?
This would depend on several factors like the quantity of VOCs in your paint, the area painted, and how well ventilated the area painted is. Experts have not precisely determined how long VOCs last in the air after the paint has dried, but they estimate that these toxins remain in the air for many months.
A home inspection by Ian Cull of Indoor Air Nerd found “very high levels” of VOCs in the air six months after paints and varnishes had been applied to a home under construction. This test was conducted using a photoionization detector (PID), an instrument that measures gases and volatile compounds in the air.
There was a 40% drop in these VOC levels another month after the homeowner followed some of Cull’s recommendations on reducing VOCs. This is a testament to how the time it takes for VOCs to dissipate depends on the measures taken to quicken this process.
Other Potentially Dangerous Chemicals in Paint
Besides VOCs, there are many other potentially dangerous chemicals in paint. For instance, the US Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration reports that Oil-based paints contain potentially toxic hydrocarbons, which are highly flammable substances like paint thinners.
Oil-based paints contain harmful pigments like cobalt, titanium, lead chromate, cadmium, and carbon black.
Lead-based paints are also dangerous to human health due to the high volume of lead required to produce them. Many houses built in the United States before 1978 were painted using lead-based paint. According to the Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention (CDC), children are often the most at risk of the dangers of lead-based paint as they may ingest the lead chips from peeling paint on walls.
Resin-type paints also pose health risks. Resin-type paints, while being low-VOC, contain other harmful substances like isocyanates. An isocyanate is a polymer that can cause a strong asthmatic type respiratory reaction in people sensitive to isocyanates.
Dry powder coating paints are predominantly used on metal surfaces. According to the Atlantic Environment Corporation, the dry powder used in making these paints poses a slight health risk, especially to factory workers who use them in the manufacturing process. Dry powder coating paints also contain hazardous components like silica or carbon black.
Reducing exposure to VOCs
Now that we have learned all there is to know about VOCs, how can we avoid them? How can we keep ourselves and our loved ones safe from the harms of these compounds?
The Minnesota Department of Health suggests that the key phrase here is to be intentional, making a conscious effort only to procure paints specially designed for indoor use and carry the right “low VOC” or “zero VOC” labels that signal their eco-friendly nature.
Healthline.com suggests other ways to reduce exposure to VOCs:
- Providing better ventilation in spaces by leaving windows and doors open, especially after a new paint job.
- When painting, prevent overexposure from painting fumes and other VOC sources by taking breaks and getting some fresh air outside when you need to.
- Seal all left-over paint cans to prevent the evaporation of vapors into the surrounding environment, or properly dispose of unused paints if possible.
Writing for the magazine dedicated to home building, renovations, and remodeling, Thespruce.com, Mary Leverette, suggests using natural remedies that absorb odors like onions, baking soda, charcoal, coffee grounds, lemon water, and natural extracts like vanilla and peppermint.