What is Zero VOC?

Paul Woods

The term Zero VOC is short for zero volatile organic compounds and refers mainly to certain types of building materials. It is most commonly used to refer to paints, paint strippers and other solvents, as these are considered to be among the largest sources of indoor volatile organic compounds. The use of the word zero does not mean the complete absence of such compounds but rather a level per liter that meets government established minimum standards.

Zero VOC paints.
Zero VOC paints.

Volatile organic compounds can occur both naturally and from synthetic materials. Most regulations setting Zero VOC standards refer to synthetic materials. In the United States, a paint product can be referred to as Zero VOC if it has amounts of volatile organic compounds at or below 5 grams per liter of paint. Adding color pigment to Zero VOC paint can increase the amount of volatile organic compounds to as much as 10 grams per liter. Zero VOC paint also can contain other potentially harmful compounds; however, even at levels of 10 grams per liter, it is considered a far safer alternative to non-Zero VOC paints.

Some copiers can emit volatile organic compounds.
Some copiers can emit volatile organic compounds.

A wide variety of commercially available paints are labeled by the manufacturers as Zero VOC. Flat latex, semi-gloss, acrylic and enamel paints are a few of the varieties of paint types included. Both interior and exterior paints can be Zero VOC.

Interest in reducing volatile organic compounds grew with concerns over air quality, particularly indoor air quality. The solvents in paint, which are necessary for color pigment to adhere to the painted surface, are a major source of volatile organic compounds. To develop Zero VOC paints, manufacturers have shifted to water-based solvents as opposed to solvents based on acetones, ethyl acetates and glycol ethers.

It is important to monitor VOC levels, as being exposed to the compounds can contribute to a variety of adverse health conditions. Immediate problems can include irritation of eyes and throat, headache or nausea. Volatile organic compounds also can bring on an attack in asthma sufferers. There can be more serious implications as well if an individual is exposed to the compounds for longer time periods; these include kidney disease, liver disease and cancer.

There are alternatives to Zero VOC paints which include Low VOC and Low Odor paints. For Low VOC paints, the allowable volatile organic compound per liter of paint is higher than Zero VOC, at 250 grams per liter and 380 grams per liter for latex and oil-based paints, respectively. It is the presence of the compounds that causes the unpleasant odor drying paint can sometime emit.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency points out that many products in addition to paints can emit volatile organic compounds as well. Among these additional sources are a variety of office machines, such as printers and copiers; some furnishings; everyday items such as markers and glue; and pesticides. Reducing the number of VOC-emitting materials and keeping indoor areas well ventilated are two EPA-recommended actions.

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