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The Dark Side to Organics: Why Choose Low-VOC Paint?

If you’re currently looking at paint in today’s world, you’ve likely heard about lead paint but you’ve probably also run across the term VOC, which stands for volatile organic compounds. VOCs are carbon-based compounds that vaporize at room temperature and can combine with other airborne compounds to form ozone. When exposed to ozone, individuals can experience symptoms such as difficulty breathing, headaches, nausea, vomiting, nosebleeds, fatigue, shortness of breath, coughing, sore throat, asthma, and even emphysema, among other issues.

Low-VOC Paint

VOCs are used in a wide array of items, and can also be found throughout nature and the home in everything from methane gas to paint supplies. In offices, VOCs can be released into the air (oftentimes called off-gassing) from new furniture, office equipment, and wall coverings.

Federal VOC limits have been getting tougher in response to the environmental impact of these compounds, and the health-related illnesses resulting from exposure. For paint specifically, these limits are currently set at 250 grams per liter (g/l) for flat paints and 380 g/l for other types. Limits vary by state, but overarching laws have been established to reduce the impact of VOCs.

The following is a list that can help you lower your exposure to harmful VOCs:

  • When using products that contain VOCs, increase the ventilation in the area. Open windows, turn on fans, and take frequent breaks to get outdoors into fresh air.
  • Read all label precautions and don’t store opened containers of paint or chemicals within the home.  Gases can leak into the home even if containers are closed.
  • Use every product containing VOCs according to its directions, and read instructions carefully.
  • Throw away any unused portions of chemicals and buy them in quantities that are quickly used up. Make sure that you also follow directions for disposing of chemicals properly. Most importantly, products that contain methylene chloride, perchloroethylene, and benzene such as paint strippers, stored fuels, smoking, and spray paints should be used sparingly. These VOCs are known to be especially damaging. Methylene chloride, for example, has been proven to cause cancer in rats.
  • Keep VOC-containing substances away from children and pets, and preferably out of common, well-used areas of the home.
  • Never mix household cleaners together, as they can combine to create unintended VOCs.

Many products are now labeled low-VOC or no-VOC. When possible, choose products with such labels to help further reduce exposure to you and your family. If you’re improving your home with a fresh coat of paint in the near future, start your low-VOC lifestyle by choosing a paint made with few volatile organic compounds.


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Gregg Cantor, a third generation contractor and owner of Murray Lampert Design, Build, Remodel has successfully remodeled thousands of homes in San Diego County. Gregg's is experienced in all phases of construction and home remodeling including design development, project management, best building practices, code requirements, and contract law. He also writes articles for examiner.com and is co-host of The Home Pro Show Saturday's at 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on A.M.600 KOGO San Diego. Follow Gregg's posts.

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