If I use “low VOC” or “No VOC” paints can I still have air quality issues?

Feb 8, 2018

We receive this question a lot from clients who may have air quality concerns after a renovation project. Many times people think they are doing the best thing by purchasing products with a label that states “Low VOCs” or “No VOCs”. After painting, they may notice a strong odor or even experience respiratory-related health issues. Understandably these people may be very frustrated because they thought they were taking an extra step, and also paying quite the premium, to avoid the chemical emissions from the paint. The truth is, many of those labels are extremely misleading.

Industry VOC regulations are different around the country, so in this post, I won’t be getting into specific requirements for different areas. The commonly referenced number for “low VOC” paint is less than 50 g/L, and for “no VOC” paint less than 5 g/L. A major issue with some of these products is how the term VOC is defined and chemicals that are exempt from being listed as a VOC.  The EPA exempts a number of VOCs that are not photoreactive (smog-forming). While this is important for outdoor air quality, these exempted VOCs can still cause indoor air quality problems.

Another hidden issue with these products comes into play when they are tinted or other additives are added to the mix. These products are not taken into consideration when a paint is advertised as “low” or “no” VOC, usually only the base paint meets those requirements.

Ventilation is key to avoiding IAQ issues with any type of painting. It is always best to have as much ventilation as possible while you are painting, and also afterward to allow for the VOCs to off-gas as much as possible.