That new paint smell may be giving you more than a short-lived headache. Common household paints contain more than 300 known toxic chemicals including gas compounds, especially glycol ethers, which are emitted from wet and dry paint. These gas compounds are known as Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) and contribute to indoor pollution and Sick Building Syndrome.
VOCs are found in a variety of household products including paint, carpet, paint strippers, cleaning supplies, pesticides, furnishings, building supplies, copiers and printers, glues, and permanent markers. Anytime a warning label encourages using a product in a well ventilated space it is almost certain that the product contains VOCs.
VOC free paint products are available and are becoming more common on the shelves at the local hardware store. Paint with low- or no-VOCs may cost more than conventional paint but may be well worth the investment for those who are sensitive to chemicals.
Low-VOC and no-VOC does not necessarily mean that the paint is harmless it just means that it is more environmentally friendly and less toxic than the other paints. In fact, VOC-free paint does not necessarily mean that it does not contain any VOCs. To be considered VOC-free or zero-VOC the paint must consist of less than 5 grams per liter of VOCs. Low-VOC paint must consist of less than 50 grams per liter.
Ditch the toxics, go for natural VOC free paint
There are natural alternatives to conventional paint that are naturally VOC free. Milk paint has been in use for hundreds of years and is made from milk protein, lime, and natural pigments. Limewash and other mineral paints are another option for porous walls such as plaster, stucco, or concrete walls.
Of course, natural alternatives have their limitations. In general, the lower the VOC levels in paint the fewer the options of texture, finish, color and durability are available.
Milk paint, for example, gives a sheer coverage and is not a good choice if opaque colors are desired; milk paint is also not suited for damp or humid locations as the milk-base will sour and is susceptible to mildew. Limewash usually has an uneven surface appearance and cannot be color matched.
Some paint manufacturers are also making more natural and sustainable paints from plants rather than from petroleum based products. These paints may still have naturally occurring VOCs and may still cause irritation to some individuals but they do avoid the harshest of the chemicals found in conventional paints.