It will come as no surprise to most that we spend most of our time indoors, whether working in the office, relaxing at home, or partaking in indoor leisure activities. However, it may be startling to learn that indoor air quality often falls below that of outdoor air, even in urban centers like New York City.

According to the EPA, ‘Americans, on average, spend about 90 percent of their time indoors, where the concentrations of some pollutants can be 2 to 5 times higher than typical outdoor concentrations.’ Such substandard indoor air quality can lead to a range of health issues, including eye, nose, and throat irritation, headaches, dizziness, and respiratory problems.

While numerous steps can be taken to improve the air quality within these environments—as I’ve discussed in a previous blog—the most effective measure is often prevention. Opting for low-VOC paints and sustainable painting solutions is a crucial strategy for maintaining healthier indoor environments.

Common Sources of Indoor Air Pollution

Many indoor air pollutants come from the construction of our environments or the furnishings and finishes selected, such as flooring, wood paneling, millwork, wallcovering, and, notably, paint—all commonly used without adequate consideration of their environmental and health impacts.

In the design of a healthy environment, thoughtful material selection in various settings—be it retail, residential, or office spaces—can significantly influence and improve indoor air quality.

For this blog, let’s examine paint, a fundamental yet often overlooked contributor to indoor air pollution. Paint, which covers 50% to 75% of most interior surfaces, plays a crucial role in aesthetic appeal and environmental air quality. Yet, selecting the same paint color with two different chemical makeups can create two radically different experiences.

The Immediate Effects of Traditional vs. Low-VOC Paints

In one scenario, imagine stepping into a freshly painted room—its walls vibrant and colorful. As you enter, the distinct odor of fresh paint surrounds you. Almost immediately, your eyes sting and water, and you sneeze. The intense smell, a clear sign of new paint, stubbornly lingers for days, making it challenging to use the space comfortably.

Now, picture a different scenario: you walk into a room newly painted with low-VOC paint. The walls radiate freshness, yet the air remains untainted by any chemical smell. You take a deep breath, feeling only comfort and ease as you admire the space’s new beauty.

Which scenario do you prefer? The choice goes beyond personal comfort—it underscores the importance of making informed decisions that prioritize health. This consideration compels us to evaluate not just the aesthetic impact of our design choices but also their effects on our well-being. As we strive to create beautiful, harmonious spaces for living or work, let’s delve into why selecting healthier paint alternatives is essential, not merely a preference.


The Impact of Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) on Health

The unpleasant “new paint” smell and accompanying discomfort in our first scenario are caused by “off-gassing.” This process occurs when paint releases volatile organic compounds (VOCs) into the air as it dries. These chemicals, which include benzene, formaldehyde, xylene, and toluene, are especially prevalent in traditional oil-based alkyd paints and, to some extent, in certain water-based paints.

Exposure to VOCs is most intense while the paint is wet and continues to pose risks long after it has dried. Short-term exposure can cause headaches, dizziness, and respiratory and neurological issues. Over the long term, VOCs can damage the nervous system, liver, and kidneys and are linked to various types of cancer.

To minimize these health risks, it is advisable to use low-VOC or no-VOC paints. Additionally, ensuring proper ventilation during the painting and drying phases and allowing rooms to air out thoroughly before use are critical steps. Special precautions should be taken to protect vulnerable groups such as pregnant women, children, and sensitive individuals from exposure.

Navigating Industry Standards for Healthier Paints

The industry has significantly shifted towards water-based paints in response to these concerns. These paints, less reliant on harmful solvents, offer a safer, more environmentally friendly alternative.

This awareness and concern about the effects of VOCs on health and the environment have led to the establishment of stringent industry standards for paint formulations. These standards delineate specific VOC limits, promoting creating and using paints that contribute to healthier and more sustainable indoor environments.

    • LOW-VOC PAINTS: These paints significantly reduce harmful emissions with concentrations less than 50 grams per liter (g/L) for flat finishes and under 150 g/L for non-flat finishes. However, specific thresholds may vary according to different certifications or standards.
    • ZERO-VOC PAINTS: Defined by their minimal or trace VOC content, typically fewer than 5 g/L, these paints are ideal for maintaining the highest air quality standards. This classification ensures minimal trace amounts of VOCs from colorants or additives.

This transition reflects a broader move towards sustainable practices, emphasizing the importance of choosing low-VOC or zero-VOC options to preserve health and ensure safer living environments.

The Role of Third-Party Certifications in Ensuring Paint Quality

Third-party certifications provide impartial assurance that paints comply with rigorous health and environmental standards. Many high-quality paints meet these standards even without formal certification. Examining ingredient lists and Technical Data Sheets (TDS) on manufacturers’ websites can offer a deeper understanding of a paint’s health implications.

Third Party Paint Certification Third-party certifications ensure that paints meet rigorous health and environmental standards.

Products meeting these standards are also eligible for LEED v.4 certification, which indicates that a product meets strict criteria for sustainability, indoor air quality, and environmental responsibility. Choosing LEED-compliant paints ensures a healthier indoor environment and contributes to broader sustainability goals.

    • SCAQMD RULE 1113: Originating from Southern California, these strict VOC limits are influential nationwide, notably in cities like NYC that focus on air quality and environmental health.
    • GREENGUARD CERTIFICATION: Ensures products emit low VOC levels and are suitable for use in offices and schools.
    • GREENGUARD GOLD CERTIFICATION: A more stringent standard that further reduces chemical emissions and incorporates additional safety measures to protect vulnerable groups like children and older adults, making it perfect for schools and healthcare facilities.
    • GREEN SEAL GS-11 CERTIFICATION: Confirms that products, including paints, meet stringent standards for low chemical emissions, enhancing indoor air quality.
    • GREEN WISE CERTIFICATION: Verifies that paints achieve essential environmental standards, such as reduced VOC levels, which are vital for healthy indoor environments.
    • GREEN WISE GOLD CERTIFICATION: Represents a higher standard within the Green Wise program, focusing on the lowest possible emissions and excluding harmful chemicals.
    • MPI (MASTER PAINTERS INSTITUTE) CERTIFICATION: While this certification emphasizes quality and compliance with specific environmental standards, it focuses on performance and durability rather than strictly on low VOC content.

EQ3 Interior 2, The SoNo Collection Mall, Norwalk CT

We used Benjamin Moore Ulta Spec 500 Zero VOC paint for EQ3’s SoNo Collection Store.

Top Choices for Low and Zero VOC Water-Based Acrylic Paints

These established brands, readily available in the New York City metropolitan area and beyond, have redefined their product lines with a strong emphasis on environmental responsibility. They now offer an extensive range of zero-VOC and low-VOC paints, known for their quality, ease of application, durability, and extensive color selections:

    • BENJAMIN MOORE ECOSPEC PAINT: Zero-VOC, Green Seal GS-11 Certified. Designed for various settings like healthcare and hospitality, EcoSpec combines sustainability with indoor air quality considerations and durable performance.
    • BENJAMIN MOORE ben: Zero-VOC. This acrylic latex paint is easy to apply and offers excellent durability. It is self-priming and spatter-resistant, suitable for residential and commercial uses where minimal VOC emission is crucial.
    • BENJAMIN MOORE ULTRA SPEC 500: Zero-VOC. Tailored for professional use, Ultra Spec 500 provides excellent quality and coverage for a variety of interior spaces, maintaining a healthier environment.
    • SHERWIN WILLIAMS PROMAR© 200 ZERO VOC: GREENGUARD Gold, USDA Certified Biobased Product. ProMar 200 is a high-performance, environmentally friendly latex paint that supports superior indoor air quality.
    • BENJAMIN MOORE AURA PAINT: Low-VOC. Aura meets Green Seal GS-11 criteria. Aura is known for its superior color depth and durability, which is ideal for high-end residential and commercial applications.
    • FARROW & BALL: Low-VOC. Celebrated for its rich pigments and depth of color, Farrow & Ball offers an environmentally friendly choice, ideal for high-quality interiors.
    • FINE PAINTS OF EUROPE EUROLUX INTERIOR ACRYLIC: Low-VOC, Complies with LEED EQ credit 4.2. Known for its longevity and minimal off-gassing, Eurolux is favored in settings that demand aesthetic appeal and environmental stewardship.

Steps to Creating a Healthy Interior Environment

As we’ve explored, your choice of paint can significantly influence indoor air quality and your health. Opting for low-VOC and zero-VOC water-based acrylic paints is crucial to creating healthier, more sustainable environments.

This discussion is just the beginning of our journey to understanding eco-friendly design choices. Stay tuned for my next blog, where I will delve into emerging water-based paints and specialty finishes, continuing our exploration of innovative and health-conscious solutions for our living and workspaces.

If you want to create a healthier environment in your living, office, or commercial environment, selecting low-VOC or zero-VOC paint is an excellent first step. Collaborating with an architect specializing in designing healthy environments can provide expert guidance and ensure that your design choices are beautiful and beneficial to your well-being.

To take the first step toward a healthier space, I invite you to contact me to schedule a free 30-minute consultation with me to discuss your project. Let’s design a space that meets your needs and promotes health.

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