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This article was featured in the March 2009 issue of Consumer Reports Magazine.

Interior paints

Our new tests reveal surprises about what paint makers claim and what you get

Olympic Premium and Benjamin Moore Aura have lower VOC levels
One-coat hiding
Olympic Premium and Benjamin Moore Aura have lower VOC levels than other tested paints and did a good job in this hiding test.
Photograph by Michael Smith

Green is hot for paint companies, and we're not talking about color. "Good for your family, better for our world," proclaims the Freshaire Choice label. "0% Toxic. 100% Smart," Mythic Paint says. "An ideal choice for rooms such as nurseries," Sherwin-Williams suggests.

Allowable levels of VOCs, or volatile organic compounds, for paints and products such as aerosol air fresheners, carpets, and furniture have been toughened because VOCs contribute to ozone and smog formation and are linked to respiratory illnesses and memory impairment. And claims by many manufacturers have grown bolder as they market to an audience more familiar with and perhaps more receptive to buying green goods.

So we shook things up in this report on water-based interior paints by measuring the VOC content of finishes that makers maintain have no VOCs and several high scorers that are marketed with no special claims. We detected VOCs in every paint, though none exceeded any applicable government limits, and some paints had lower levels than others.

The top paints in our Ratings (available to subscribers) had among the highest claimed VOC levels, including Behr Premium Plus Enamel low-luster and flat and Benjamin Moore Regal semigloss. Lowering VOC levels can affect performance. "When you take out VOCs, you still need strong performance properties, but you have to find other ways to achieve them," says Carl Minchew, product-development director at Benjamin Moore. Still, some no- and low-VOC paints did well in our tests (available to subscribers).

We also made another big change in our tests. Recognizing that manufacturers tout the one-coat coverage of finishes and that you might hope to save time and money by using paints that can do a solid job with only one coat, we've modified our hiding-test score to better assess this attribute.

Focus on VOCs

Federal VOC limits are now set at 250 grams per liter (g/l) for flat paints and 380 g/l for others. Some states and regions have lowered the VOC levels for paints that can be legally sold in their areas. California's standards are stringent: 150 g/l for nonflat finishes and 100 g/l for flat. Even tougher is the 50 g/l level for all finishes set by California's South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD), around Los Angeles. The Environmental Protection Agency hopes to propose new federal VOC regulations in May, with a targeted effective date in 2011.

Tougher VOC limits have been adopted as a way to alleviate the environmental impact of those compounds and the resulting health issues. "By far, people painting their houses is the largest source category of emissions under our regulatory jurisdiction," says Naveen Berry, planning and rules manager at the AQMD.

Given the attention on VOCs, we decided to measure their levels in untinted bases and tinted paints of eight products, including all in our Ratings (available to subscribers) marketed as zero-VOC. We had to check the bases and tinted paints because current local, state, and federal regulations cover only VOCs in the bases. But tints, which are added to all bases, even most white paints, also contain VOCs. So the paint you apply will probably have a higher VOC level than what's indicated on the can.

The certified independent laboratory we contracted with used Environmental Protection Agency Method 24, the nationally referenced test. In every case, the lab measured VOC levels higher than the manufacturer's claims for zero-VOC paints.

'Less is always better'

Those test results could reflect an inherent flaw of Method 24, which has been known to yield high error rates in paints with no or low levels of VOCs. "The method was set up a long time ago, when a lot of the companies didn't have big labs," says William C. Golton, Ph.D., an industry consultant who has long been involved in VOC testing. "That meant it had to be easy to do." But the rudimentary test was never intended to measure VOC levels below 100 g/l.

The AQMD is aware of those drawbacks and uses Method 313-91, which is supposed to be more accurate for no- and low-VOC paints. Some companies acknowledge the unreliability of Method 24, but it is still the only method that can be used for certification. "The wheels grind slowly," Golton says, "and the EPA has not yet revised Method 24 to give manufacturers that option."

From a health perspective, the difference between paints with, say, a VOC level of 35 g/l and those with two or three times that amount is hard to quantify. But experts we spoke with agree that using paints with lower VOC levels is a prudent choice. Janice Nolen, assistant vice president of the American Lung Association, says studies suggest an increased prevalence of respiratory problems consistent with higher VOC levels in freshly painted homes. "Generally speaking, less is always better," she says.

Existing regulations and testing protocols make it hard to determine which paints contain the least VOCs. Consumers Union, the nonprofit publisher of Consumer Reports, is calling for the EPA to:

  • Lower the federal government's allowable VOC levels for all paints and coatings.
  • Set VOC levels for tints, which can more than double paints' overall VOC levels.
  • Mandate a more sensitive method for measuring VOC levels of no- and low-VOC paints as the nationally referenced test for all manufacturers. The EPA says a new test will be part of its May 2009 proposal.
  • Set a specific VOC standard for indoor-air pollutants based on public-health and environmental risks. The EPA is dubious. "How would we regulate indoor air?" asks Dale Kemery, an EPA spokesman. "Would we send officials around sniffing under people's doors?" But AQMD officials say studies on indoor-air quality exist and indoor-air regulations are being considered. The nonprofit Collaborative for High Performance Schools, in California, oversees a building-rating program for member schools, among other projects. It determines which paints may be used based in part on state indoor-air-quality specifications.
Posted: February 2009 — Consumer Reports Magazine issue: March 2009