Beyond "Zero-VOC" Paint

What’s wrong with conventional petrochemical paints?

For starters, the health hazards of conventional paint are well-recognized.  In 1989 the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer determined that professional painters had a 40% increased chance of contracting cancer and went as far as classifying painting as a “carcinogenic activity.”  The EPA has found that indoor concentrations of many VOCs, or volatile organic compounds, are up to ten times higher than outdoors.  VOCs are emitted by a wide array of products including paints, cleaning supplies, pesticides, building materials and furnishings.  Paint is among the top sources of indoor air pollution and the VOCs continue to be released into the air for several years after the paint is applied.  

Aside from the health and environmental harms associated with VOCs, conventional pain contains a variety of chemical toxins that fall outside the definition of VOCs.  Conventional paints are energy intensive to produce, and are made with scarce, nonrenewable resources (mostly petroleum). 

A petrochemical plant Aren’t Zero-VOC and Low-VOC paints good enough?

In recent years the paint industry has responded to consumer demand for healthier, greener products by reducing the amount of VOC’s, in some of their paints.  Most conventional paint manufacturers today offer low-VOC or zero-VOC versions of latex paints.  “Zero-VOC” paints may still contain as much as 5 grams of VOCs per liter of paint- and that’s before tinting.  Tinting can substantially increase VOC levels unless the paint store uses special zero-VOC colorants.  The approach of paint manufacturers in creating zero-VOC paints has been to focus and remove certain toxins from their paint formulas that have come under fire- not to take a holistic view of the overall safety and sustainability of their products.

While the reduction of VOC’s is a step in the right direction, VOC’s are not the only problem with petrochemical paints.  According to some sources, removing the VOC’s from paints actually results in more ingredients overall and a more energy-intensive production process.  No-VOC paints still contain a variety of chemical additives such as fungicides, mildewcides, exempt solvents, and odor masking agents. Furthermore, it is virtually impossible to seriously scrutinize paint manufacturers’ claims that their products are sustainable and healthy to use because they fail to fully disclose their ingredients.  When is the last time you saw a full ingredient list on a paint label?

Conventional paints are made with highly processed petrochemical ingredients.  This complex manufacturing process results in significant energy use and waste products.  The production of one gallon of conventional paint is said to result in 10-30 gallons of waste.  
Paint can lead to environmental contaminationEven zero-VOC paints must be properly disposed of at your local hazardous material collection center to prevent contamination.  The EPA estimates that about 10 percent of all paint purchased in the United States becomes leftover – around 64 million gallons annually. The cost for municipalities to manage leftover consumer paint averages $8 per gallon, making paint disposal a half a billion dollar per year cost.  This bill is footed by municipal governments, and ultimately, taxpayers.  Of course the environmental cost associated with improper disposal is much higher: When one gallon of paint is thrown away and seeps into the earth, it has the ability to pollute up to 250,000 gallons of drinking water.