The ABC’s of VOCs Part Two

Assessment criteria

Many criteria can be used to assess the relative level of toxicity in the coatings that are sold, purchased, and applied. Government regulations have increasingly restricted the presence of chemicals in paints and coatings that might have a negative impact on the atmosphere (regarding smog creation), but strict regulations for chemicals that might have an impact on human health have yet to be implemented. We would like to stress the fact that coatings which carry a “low” or “zero VOC” label aren’t necessarily free from Hazardous Air Pollutants (HAPs) or toxins. This a critical point that is often misunderstood. “Zero VOC” does not mean non-toxic.

What follows in this article is a thumbnail sketch of a few HAPs that are classified by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as potential sources of both acute and chronic irritants or carcinogens. They may be present in low-VOC latex paints and represent a risk to painters and susceptible consumers.

Because human immune system responses can differ by orders of magnitude (factors that increase in 10-fold steps), it is impossible to state with consistency what effect a given chemical, combination of chemicals, or coating will have on any individual. But perhaps better safe than sorry. In his editorial “Life as a used paint can”, veteran painter and Professional Painter magazine editor Bruce MacKinnon laments about a list of personal woes including Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), and raises the fuzzy issue of responsibility as it relates to HAP exposure.

It may be difficult to ascertain what ingredients are in a finish if a manufacturer chooses to not disclose the information willingly. Material data safety sheets (MSDS) need only list information relevant to the physical, chemical, and toxicological makeup of a substance where the ingredients constitute more than 1% of the total volume and are not considered part of a “proprietary blend”.

We list below a group of common chemicals that may be included in paints and coatings, and which have been implicated to have potentially toxic effects for human health.

The Glycols Paints may contain several forms of VOC-forming glycols that are commonly added as wetting agents. Although there is a general movement away from ethylene glycol (EG) as an additive in paints, it is still a commonly used toxin. Alternatively, propylene glycol (PG) is a replacement for EG, and while it is still a VOC, it is also an FDA approved food-grade additive.

Ethanol Classified by the EPA as a major VOC, ethanol (BEE) is a form of alcohol that can deter the body’s processing of other toxic chemicals.

Ammonia The EPA has exempted this chemical from classification as a VOC when used as a paint additive, and its presence need not be disclosed on MSDS sheets.

Acetone A solvent whose vapors are a respiratory tract irritant and which may cause coughing, dizziness, dullness, headache, central nervous system depression, narcosis, and at high concentrations, unconsciousness.

Biocides Added to inhibit the growth of microorganisms in the can and on the coated surface, biocides may contribute significantly to the formation of formaldehyde. Products with biocides intended for exterior use can become sources of HAPs if used indoors.

Formaldehyde One of a group of HAPs in the Aldehyde family. Although it hasn’t been used as a paint additive for many years, it is commonly created by two or more mutually reactive chemicals (formaldehyde precursors) during the application and curing process. It is considered a probable human carcinogen.

Other Aldehydes: Acetaldehyde, Benzaldehyde, and Propanol These chemicals can be respiratory irritants and bind to cells such as liver and lung cells to create autoimmune responses.

Crystalline Silica Otherwise known as quartz, it is considered one of the most dangerous occupational dusts and a carcinogen, and is commonly found in paints and coatings, especially exterior latex paints. While it can become airborne during paint application, the primary risk is from dust exposure through abrasion or the sanding of dry films.

Pigments These may be glycol and VOC-free, or they may contain glycol, VOCs, and formaldehyde-forming biocides.

Odor Masking Agents These are chemical additives that conceal the odors of offensive chemicals. They may function as irritants in and of themselves.


The suggestion by the EPA that consumers need emission information and performance evaluation results to make informed purchasing decisions is an idea that involves a different way of thinking. For those of us who place indoor air quality high on our list of building objectives, responsibility must begin and end with ourselves. For those inclined to move in this direction, we would like to cite a thought-provoking book that is becoming a classic for reorganizing our thinking: Cradle to Cradle by William McDonough and Michael Braungart.

Andrew J. Pace, CSI, is the owner of Safe Building Solutions in Waukesha, WI. Safe Building Solutions is a residential and commercial supplier of safer and more natural building materials. Mr. Pace is also past president of the Milwaukee Chapter of the Construction Specifications Institute. He can be reached by calling 800-697-5371 or email to

Michael Fallarino is a professional journalist and writer, building contractor, and holistic health consultant. You can download a sample of his eclectic book, Contemporary Relationships between Wood & Finish, at his website: He can be reached in the Capital Region of New York at 518-828-5670.


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