Breathe Easy — It’s Green Paint



The Environmental Protection Agency warns that the air inside our homes is significantly more toxic and polluted than the air outside, even in America’s heavily industrialized regions. Many indoor paints, carpets and plastics contain hazardous chemicals that outgas over time and can be detrimental to our family’s health. With so much time spent indoors, we do well to select greener, healthier products to use inside our homes. Fortunately, we have options.


Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are organic chemicals that vaporize readily into the air we breathe. Paints traditionally contain VOCs, and as the paint dries, those compounds evaporate into our homes. In fact, paints can release low levels of toxins into the air for years after application.

From headaches and dizziness to asthma attacks and other respiratory problems, many of us have experienced such symptoms of short-term exposure after painting a room in our house. Long-term exposure to VOCs has been linked to even more serious health problems, including kidney and liver disease and cancer. Children, the elderly, and people with respiratory illnesses or compromised immune systems are particularly susceptible to the effects of certain paint toxins.

After the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) identified VOCs as major contributors to the formation of smog, they set acceptable VOC levels for consumer products; most paint manufacturers complied by reducing VOCs in their paints. But Green Seal, an independent, nonprofit organization dedicated to transforming the marketplace, didn’t believe the EPA went far enough in protecting the environment and human health, so they set more stringent standards for paints.

Green Seal-certified paints, listed at GreenSeal.org, have much lower VOC levels and don’t use certain dangerous chemicals in the manufacturing process. If a product meets or exceeds the organization’s criteria, Green Seal allows the manufacturer to include their certification mark on the product label.

Here’s a useful guide to use when shopping:

Low VOC Paints

Today, most major paint companies offer several low-VOC paint products. These have fewer VOCs than the conventional paints of the past and less of that ‘fresh paint’ odor. According to the EPA, flat interior paint is considered low-VOC if its VOC content is less than 250 grams per liter (g/l), or 380 g/l for non-flat interior paints. Green Seal’s more aggressive threshold is 50 g/l for flat interior paint, and 150 g/l for non-flat interior coatings.

Zero VOC Paints

Zero-VOC paints, also referred to as ‘no VOC’ and ‘VOC-free’, are much healthier than conventional paints. But know that these may have VOC levels of 5 g/l or less because they may contain colorants, biocides or fungicides, which contain low levels of VOCs.

Natural Paints

Natural paints, made from raw ingredients such as water, milk, clay, plant oils and resins, plant dyes, chalk and beeswax, are a greener, healthier alternative to traditional paints. These paints are truly nontoxic and typically don’t have any annoying odor, although some oil-based natural paint products may emit a citrus fragrance. Allergic reactions to these paints are uncommon.
Natural paints are a little harder to find, have limited color palettes, and are sometimes significantly different than the wall coatings that we are accustomed to. For example, some milk paints are sold as a powder and require mixing with water. Applying milk paint may take getting used to, and may require a greater amount than traditional paint to cover the same area.

Today’s safer interior paints are durable, affordable, and less harmful to humans and the environment. When considering painting a room or two or three, today’s rainbow of more planet- and people-friendly options allows us all to breathe a little more easily.

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