Contents:
  1. What are Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC's)?
  2. What exactly does Low-VOC, VOC-Free, or No-VOC mean?
  3. Are VOC quantity measurements accurate?
  4. Where do VOC's Come From?
  5. What are Current VOC Regulations?
  6. What is Green Seal certification?

What are Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC's)?


Volatile organic compounds, also known as VOC’s, are hazardous gasses emitted from a variety of common products including paints, paint strippers, sealants, adhesives, cauk, laminates, and wood finishes such as varnish. Thousands of chemicals are considered to be VOC’s by the United States Environmental Protection Agency. Recently efforts have been made to lower the quantity of VOC’s in paint and painting materials using regulation, while in the private sector more and more companies are offering low VOC products to keep up with an increasingly environmentally friendly and health conscious consumer base.

Historically the drawbacks of low VOC painting products included inferior performance and higher production costs; however, advances in technology have increased the performance of low-VOC paints while lowering production costs. Today many low-VOC or no-VOC paints have performance on par with traditional paints which contain higher levels of VOC’s.

What exactly does Low-VOC, VOC-Free or No-VOC mean?


Claims of ‘Low-VOC’ and ‘No-VOC’ are not legally enforced, in other words they don’t necessarily mean anything. However manufacturers are legally required to disclose the actual VOC concentration of their paint somewhere on the can, so if you are looking for a low VOC paint, look for one that has a concentration of less than 50 g/l. ‘No-VOC’ is somewhat of a misnomer in the sense that almost no paints are VOC free. When a manufacturer claims in good faith that their product has ‘No-VOC’ or is ‘VOC-Free’ it usually means the paint has a VOC concentration of 5 g/l or less.

Are VOC quantity measurements accurate?


Not entirely; unfortunately 'Method 24', the official method used by the EPA and paint manufacturers to evaluate the VOC contents of paint products, is outdated and was in fact never designed for use in substances with VOC concentrations of less than 100 g/l. There are other more accurate testing processes, some of which have been adopted by local states and municipalities who enforce their own VOC regulations, but federal regulations and most paint manufactures still rely on the outdated ‘Method 24’ for their results. Also testing does not account for any VOC heavy tints that are sometimes added at point-of-sale.

Where do VOC’s Come From?


The majority of VOC’s are found in paint’s solvent. Oil based paints tend to have high levels of VOC’s, whereas Latex paints whose base is water, have low levels of VOC’s. Other sources of VOC’s include performance enhancing additives such as fungicides and mildewcides, as well as tints which are sometimes added to the paint at the point-of-sale.

What are current VOC regulations?


The US Environmental Protection Agency currently regulates the max level of VOC’s in paint products depending on their finish type (learn more about paint finishes in our article: Types of Paint Finish).

The levels are as follows:

  1. Flat Finish: 250 grams per liter (g/l)
  2. Non Flat Finish: 380 grams per liter (g/l)

However several states and municipalities enforce even more stringent requirements. California in particular has strict requirements, 100 g/l for flat finishes and 150 g/l for all other finishes. Even stricter than that is California’s South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD) around Los Angeles whose limits are set at 50 g/l for all paint finishes.

What is Green Seal certification?


Green Seal is a non-profit organization founded in 1989 which creates ‘green’ standards for various products, including painting products. Green Seal certification for paint products includes maximum VOC levels depending on paint type:

  1. Interior
    1. Non-flat finish: 150 g/l
    2. Flat Finish: 50 g/l
  2. Exterior
    1. Non-flat finish: 200 g/l
    2. Flat Finish: 100 g/l

Green Seal also specifically prohibits the use of dozens of other hazardous materials and heavy metals. Green seal certified paint products are required to meet minimum performance requirements including abrasion resistance (durability), opacity (hiding power), and washability.