Are zero VOCs paints always safe?
Originally published April 30, 2012 in the Green Home Guide, a service of the U.S. Green Building Council
Q: Has anyone used Kelly Moore's zero voc paint products and had reactions to them? I used Kelly Moore zero VOC paint in my empty condo and 8 days later, after having fans running 24/7 with all windows/patio door open, I cannot be in there for 5 minutes without a severe reaction with headaches, nausea and brain-fog. I can't find out what is in the paint that may be causing this. Have you tested Kelly Moore's zero voc paint and/or do other people have problems with their products?
— asked by Susan, Richardson, TX
A: While I have not used Kelly Moore's zero VOC paint, we receive countless phone calls just like yours from people using almost all brands of zero voc paint. “How can this be, they ask? I thought zero VOC meant it was safe and non-toxic?” Here are two possible answers.
Zero VOCs does not mean it is safe
It simply means there are no volatile organic compounds. While that is good for your health, there may be plenty of nasty ingredients that are not classified as VOCs in the paint or the pigment. Two well-known examples are acetone and ammonia and many of their derivatives which are used as solvents in paint. If you look up the MSDS on these chemicals you will see they are not considered VOCs. Why? Because they don't cause outdoor air pollution or smog.
VOC laws were put into effect primarily to reduce the amount of chemicals in the atmosphere that promote smog. This law was intended mainly for large scale manufacturers of chemical pollutants. The EPA seems to be concerned mostly with the effects of chemicals that affect the environment in an overall way and not the small effects experienced inside of a home, although everything adds up.
Only 20% of the chemicals have been fully tested
There are plenty of other chemicals used in paint to mask odors, inhibit mold and mildew growth, extend shelf life, provide good adhesion, improve smooth flow on the wall, improve bonding with certain surfaces, etc., etc. The problem is that many of these chemicals are totally unknown for their affects on humans. Only 20% of the chemicals have been fully tested. The others have not been tested and many have been grandfathered into the system when the TCSA (Toxic Control Substance Act) began without requiring further testing.
It’s a scary situation we have gotten into but there are major movements in the works to correct that. It will take years and will be an uphill battle with the chemical companies just like fighting the cigarette companies, or oil companies that don't want more regulation or change.
Applying water-based paints
Water-based paints contain lots of water as the carrier of pigments. When you apply this to a dry surface it soaks into the surface and changes it slightly. A dry surface suddenly becomes wet for hours, and whatever was sealed under a thin skin may now open up and breathe again. It's like waking up your cereal in the morning: it snap, crackles and pops in the presence of milk. If your Kelly Moore paint was rolled over an old oil-based paint that contained solvents, for example, the presence of extra moisture could re-activate it causing off-gassing to start all over again, albeit in much lower intensity. Having sold paint for the past 21 years, reports of this type of experience has become very commonplace.
What to do about off-gassing
In a previous Q & A, I explained various methods for how to reduce or eliminate off-gassing via specialty encapsulating sealers. Please refer to that article: Asked by Bonnie Parker, Tucson, AZ.
For more information see my white paper on IAQ and Your Health, A Deeper Look at VOCs and Formaldehyde.
Also, you may wish to read How to Test a New Product for Chemical Sensitivity.