I’ve had to tell our Facilities Department not to paint inside our buildings during work hours. Every time this has happened, one or more employees in the area leave work immediately because of the smell and how it makes them feel. Paints can contain some fairly toxic and irritating chemicals.
The most common problem with paints is volatile organic compounds (or VOCs). As paint is applied to a surface and begins to dry, the VOCs in the paint are escaping into the air and may continue to off-gas at low levels for years after application.
People working or living in a freshly painted area may breathe in these VOCs which can cause a variety of health problems like headaches, dizziness and other acute symptoms. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, some VOCs used in paints are known human carcinogens and VOCs emissions can also contribute to ozone depletion.
Because of the problems with VOCs, low-VOC paints are becoming more and more popular. As the name implies, these paints contain fewer volatile organic compounds and must meet the definition of low-VOC paints established by the federal government. Most major paint manufacturers offer low-VOC paints, and these are much healthier than standard paint.
Low VOC paints however can still off-gas VOCs and generate an odor. Paint manufacturers are now beginning to offer zero-VOC paints. These are even healthier for you than the low-VOC paints, and they are also advertised as being completely odorless. There are catches, of course. No VOC paints are more expensive, harder to find, available in a limited number of colors and may not work as well as other paints. Plus, when pigment is added at the store, the VOC levels can climb back up (although one brand, Freshaire Choice, claims the pigments used for their product are also VOC-free).
Zero-VOC paints may cost more and your selection may be limited, but they are healthier for you and the environment.