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Low- and No-VOC Paints [IMAGE: Low-VOC paints are much healthier than conventional paints]
Eating healthy is hard. . . but painting healthy is easy!
After painting, the volatile organic compound (VOC) level in your home can be 1,000 times the healthy normal level. VOCs are unhealthy gasses that evaporate out of paint and other materials. When painting, you can tell VOCs are present from that 'fresh paint smell' that warns you to leave the room or risk headaches, nausea, asthmatic reactions or other lung problems.
No pain, no gain, right?
Wrong! Low- or no-VOC paints are available to combat this health hazard. They are healthier for you and your family, they are just as beautiful and durable, and they cost about the same as premium paint ($20 to $50 a gallon).
What's a Low-VOC Paint?
Low-VOC paint is made with far fewer toxic chemicals that can become airborne and inhaled than high-VOC paint. VOC levels are most often given in grams per liter (g/l). Interior paint is considered low-VOC if its VOC content is less than 100 g/l (for flat sheen) or 150 g/l (non-flat sheen). In contrast, non low-VOC paints can have 250 g/l for flat and 380 g/l of VOCs for non-flat. That's a lot of extra chemicals to inhale.
Paint is either water-based (latex, vinyl, or acrylic) or oil-based (alkyd). A general rule of thumb is that water-based paints are much lower in VOCs than oil-based paints. Go with water-based if at all possible.
What's a No-VOC Paint?
It's a paint that emits zero, yes zero, volatile organic chemicals. Nice!
How to Get It [IMAGE: Green Seal certifies low-voc paints]
You can get them at most stores that sell paint. But most personnel at hardware or big box stores won't know what low-voc or no-voc paints are, so you'll have to actually look at the cans yourself. (You know you love the hunt.) The easiest way is to look for the Green Seal mark. Green Seal certifies paints that meet a number of performance requirements, including VOC levels of less than 50 g/l for flat and 150 g/l for non-flat.
However, many paints meet Green Seal's VOC requirements that don't get certified, so you can also look for the amount of VOCs. Oftentimes, the VOC count is hidden on the back of the can, and without any explanation, such as:
No more than
Sometimes, the VOC content is not listed on the can at all. If this is the case, it's probably pretty high, so you shouldn't buy the paint. If you're just dying of curiosity, the store is supposed to keep specs of the paint, so ask a clerk to see them.
If you don't feel like looking at the back of a can's size 6 font fine print, you can find healthy paints at your local green store. The major "big box" home improvement stores are usually well-stocked with low-VOC paints, too. Or if you're the online shopping type, and you're not trying to precisely match the paint color to your throw pillows, it's easy to find low- and no-VOC paints online. You can buy a gallon in cyberspace for roughly $30.
Other Low- and No-VOC Products
Low- and no-VOC stains and clear finishes for floors, cabinets and trim are also commonly available.
Low VOC Does Not Mean Non-toxic
For those of you looking to go one step greener natural, non-toxic paints are for you. Natural paints are made from natural ingredients, such as milk or clay, and are, uh, non-toxic. Yum.
Content updated on 2/27/2007
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