Those cans of paint stocked on every home center shelf and in every hardware store contain volatile organic compounds, or VOCs: It's a little acronym that can spell big trouble for your indoor air quality.
VOCs serve a legitimate purpose in your paint: They keep the other parts of your paint, such as the pigment, in a liquid state, which results in a high-quality, even application. Once the color goes on the walls, the VOCs begin to off-gas as the paint dries. (They will continue to do so for months after application.) For many people, that new paint smell represents a home improvement job, well done. But VOCs and off-gassing can affect your health adversely. Some issues include respiratory problems, headaches, irritated eyes, nausea -- and worse -- damage to the central nervous system, liver, and kidneys, and even cancer.
The health concerns have many people asking if VOCs are necessary to get a great paint finish. Paint manufacturers have developed alternative products -- low- and no-VOC paints -- that are just as beautiful with less risk to your family's health. Most major paint companies sell these alternative formulas on home center shelves, but you have to know to look for them. These paints are widely available in the same great colors, but you will pay a higher price for them. The National Resources Defense Council says to read the labels. A low amount of VOCs varies according to product, but for interior paints and stains, shop for products with concentrations below 50 g/L.
Paints aren't the only building product that emits VOCs. The NRDC says to be a smart shopper when buying these home products: aerosol sprays, air fresheners, carpets, caulks and sealants, cleaners and disinfectants, dry-cleaned clothing, finishes, paints, paint thinner, solvents, stored fuels, varnishes, vinyl floors, and wood preservatives.
To improve your indoor air quality and reduce VOCs, switch to low- or no-VOC paint formulas. When purchasing other items for your home such as rugs and furniture, choose floor models that have been allowed to off-gas in the store. Choose solid wood furniture over manufactured wood products. To alleviate existing gases in your home, reduce your exposure to VOCs in simple ways: Open the windows, use fans, and do home improvements when you can allow for better ventilation.