Green Building Blocks: Low VOC Paints & Finishes

The Building Blocks of Green: Lowering Water Usage

Every home needs a splash of paint or two; wood finishes need staining. Paints and other coating products help give a house its unique character, helping to make it an inviting space to live in.

Historically, paints and finishes contained harmful chemicals and solvents that contained Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs). VOCs provide durability, helps finishes adhere better to surfaces, makes colors brighter and longer-lasting….. what's the problem?

VOCs: An Environmental Hazard

The problem is that VOCs and the human body really don't get along very well. VOCs emit gases that can be harmful. If you can imagine the smell of a freshly-painted or stained room, that is the smell of VOCs. The gases emitted by VOCs contributes to various health issues, both long and short-term. From asthma to cancer, VOCs have been implicated in some serious health concerns.

The highest level of VOCs come from oil-based solvents that help keep paints, stains, and varnishes in their preferable liquid form. Formaldehyde, toluene, alcohol ketones, acetates: all are solvents that off-gas high levels of VOCs.

The main threat from VOCs comes during application and the period immediately after. As paints dry, its chemical components off-gas VOCs into the air, where they are inhaled. Indoor VOC levels can high enough to irritate eyes, nose, and throat, and cause headaches or nausea. Some products can cause elevated VOC levels for longer periods, up to years.

Low-VOC Products: A Healthier Alternative

Lowering VOC levels in the home is a key step in improving indoor air quality. Luckily, there are more and more low-VOC products, even zero-VOC products, available every year that perform just as well as their high-VOC brethren. In general, water-based solvents such as latex paints, have lower levels of VOCs.

Most lower VOC products are labeled as such; VOC levels of 50 grams per liter or less is generally considered a 'low-VOC' product. The Green Seal label on products are guaranteed to meet strict environmental standards in addition to being low-VOC; they must also be free from other toxic substances such as carcinogens, reproductive toxins, air pollutants, heavy metals, and formaldehyde.

Building Blocks: Low VOC

As with all of the Green Building Blocks, choosing lower-VOC products is an important step. Improving indoor air quality is a hallmark of green home design, and reducing VOC levels is crucial. But the Building Blocks system is all about priorities.

When deciding which green building blocks to consider, it will be more beneficial to focus on the larger building blocks at the bottom of the Green Wall. These larger blocks provide large efficiency and sustainability improvements, often with lower upfront investment and shorter payback periods.
Low VOC products are beneficial, but their overall contributions to a green home are lower than the bigger Blocks.

For homeowners that have pre-existing health conditions such as asthma or have sensitivities to chemicals, focusing on lower-VOC products is obviously going to be more important than some of the other building blocks. That is the advantage of the Building Block system; there are no right or wrong ways to use them. They are simply guidelines to help achieve the 'greenest' level possible for individual homeowners and their unique situations.

At Green Home Source, our belief is that we should all take steps to make our homes as clean and efficient as possible,however big or small those steps are is immaterial. The important thing is to take steps in the right direction. Whether you incorporate one Building Block into your home or all of them, it all counts.

To learn more about healthier paints and finishes, click here.

To return to the main Building Blocks of Green page, click HERE.

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